Ingres: portrait of a meticulous master

The impeccable works of the French 19th-century artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) reward a detailed, scrupulous consideration.

They ask us to look at them in a way that measures up somewhat to Ingres's own conviction that art with "a great formal purity" (like his) demands "slow and searching study."

It was this concept that led to Ingres and the High Renaissance artist he emulated, Raphael, being seen as the archetypes of academic art. Of art, that is, that is learned as a discipline rather than, in Romantic vein, the expression of untrained individual genius.

The only problem with this conviction was that Raphael and Ingres proved to be inimitable. Ironically, they were both remarkable assimilators of the work of other artists.

To a viewer who prefers the freedom and boldness of strong, quick gesture, Ingres's meticulous paintings and exacting drawings might at first seem too coldly precise and artificial. But the longer you look, the greater subtlety of form and observation you see.

Some commentators on Ingres's art have been unable to escape a degree of distaste for him. This unattributed observation in "The Oxford Companion to Art" (1970) is an example: "He was a bourgeois with the limitations of a bourgeois mentality. His portraits are sentimental and his subject pictures vapid."

But such sweeping and shallow castigations have failed to dent this artist's high reputation. His sinuous draftsmanship, formal idealism, and contained expression of sensuous beauty amount to a unique vision. He remains a prominent figure in the pantheon of French art and, indeed, of world art. His work was of compelling interest to some later artists, Degas, Matisse, and Picasso among them.

And art historians have long found the complex interplay of passion, devotion, and cool, relentless skill irresistibly intriguing. This is evidenced most recently in the massive book that accompanies the exhibition, "Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch," now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Robert Rosenblum, in the book's introduction, points out that it is not justifiable to follow the tradition of hierarchically separating Ingres's portraits from his history paintings - as if the first genre was essentially a bread-and-butter chore, while the second was all that he took seriously. It seems that Ingres himself did not divide his art in this way. He exhibited both aspects together. And there is certainly evidence, particularly in the case of the two portraits reproduced here, of exhaustive cogitation and preparation before the final paintings were produced.

Nothing about his exquisite portrait of Vicomtesse Othenin d'Haussonville (above) - which had a gestation of about three years - suggests casualness. And the imposing, even intimidating, portrait of one of the most powerful newspapermen of the time, Louis-Franois Bertin (at left), similarly has a number of extant preparatory drawings connected with it. They indicate not just the artist's usual fastidiousness, but also a characteristic indecision about his sitter's final posture.

One story has Ingres becoming so frustrated by his failure to settle on a telling pose for Bertin that he shed tears. Then, suddenly, he saw Bertin strike the defiant posture we now see in his portrait.

Ingres took his portrait commissions very seriously. This is revealed in the way the portraits frequently link up with the figures Ingres admired in ancient or Renaissance art. The portraits may seem to be "images of an epoch," and in dress and accoutrements they are perfect period pieces.

Yet Ingres's "Bertin" evokes the commanding aspect of some antique Roman senator or emperor carved in marble. And the Vicomtesse strikes a pose almost identical with a figure of ancient legend, Stratonice, depicted in one of Ingres's history paintings. In turn, both figures derive from a 15th-century bronze statue of "Hannah," by Lorenzo Ghiberti in Florence.

That's what it means to have your portrait painted by a student of art history.

*'Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch,' will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until Jan. 2, 2000.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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