Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at the Louvre

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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at the Louvre
Neo-classicism is neo all over again.  In the past 12 months there have been two exhibitions focused on the work of Jacques-Louis David, a large retrospective of Girodet’s paintings, and now the Louvre has mounted a major exhibition of Jean-August Dominique Ingres’ paintings and drawings.  Can Poussin be far behind?  It seems that there is a desire for the clarity and precision of the art of the neo-classical movement.  What would T.J. Clark say about this?  Is ours a society in search of simplification, of serious-minded explanations, or precedents and examples of morality by which we can live?  It’s an interesting question worth posing, but it probably does not have a definitive answer.   Ingres himself lived in interesting times.  Born in Montauban just nine years before the French revolution, he was precocious when it came to drawing.  His talent led him to Toulouse’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the age of eleven.  Perhaps his elders were otherwise engaged, but the youngster soon found his way to the atelier of David where for four years, he worked, studied, and learned his lessons well.  On his second try, in 1801, he won the Prix de Rome, with a painting of Achilles receiving the ambassadors of Agamemnon.   This picture, seen here on loan to the Louvre from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, gave the academicians just what they wanted:  a moralizing tale taken from ancient history, clearly delineated, neatly painted, and laden with heroic male nudes, lightly draped.  Indeed, the lighting is perfectly studied and falls on each figure to its best advantage, giving volume as the shadows adhere to the ideal athletic bodies.  Where did these guys work out in the nineteenth century?  Each perfect figure stands in balanced relationship to every other figure.  The colors are carefully modulated with a balance of blues, reds, and greens.    The cast of characters, reading left to right, in the middle ground: Briseis, Achilles’ lover; in the foreground: Achilles, Patroclus, Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax.  Just to refresh your memory, Agamemnon had earlier abducted Briseis, a woman Achilles had himself abducted.   After she left with Agamemnon, Achilles refused to fight or to permit his troops to fight.  The Greeks were stymied and began to lose to the Trojans. Achilles’ mother pleaded with Zeus and Agamemnon sent a delegation of soldiers with Odysseus, Ajax and the elderly Phoenix, to plead with Achilles.  The delegation brought bounty with them in the form of gold and the return of Achilles’ woman.  While he accepted the gold and the woman, Achilles still refused to return to battle.  His determination to lead a peaceable life is shown here by his interest in music, clearly meant as a non-bellicose activity.   It is only after the death of Patroclus that he again takes up arms.     Ingres focuses on the angst of the warriors and the passivity of Achilles and Patroclus.  The secondary importance of the woman is made clear by her placement in the shadows of the residence.  Just as an aside, isn’t it time for someone to write a novel on the Trojan wars from the point of view of Briseis?  What a life she had!  But the judges of the Academy would have rejected such a focus for this painting, done in the first year of the nineteenth century.  A country emerging from the Reign of Terror was probably looking for a pacifist message, not a feminist one.   Interestingly, this exhibition begins with an image based on the same chapter of the Iliad that earned Ingres the Prix de Rome, the moment when the mother of Achilles pleads with Zeus to let the Trojans win so that Achilles will be drawn back into battle.    Called Jupiter and Thetis and painted in 1811, sent to Paris from Rome as evidence of his continued artistic progress, it was, according to the record, not well accepted by the academicians.  They must have seen it as too extreme in its emotions, too intimate in the poses, too sensual in the depiction of Thetis who is, at any rate, too young to be Achilles’ mother.  I too am critical, but only of the title.  The god of the Iliad is Zeus, not Jupiter, who is a god in the Roman pantheon.     Be that as it may, Ingres has drawn us into the narrative by emphasizing the impassivity of the enthroned god and the preternaturally long outstretched arms of the woman.  Without knowing the story, you still know that she has thrown herself on his mercy and that he is having none of it.   The fact that he is of gigantic stature and that she is erotically disrobed only adds to the disparity of the power play.   In fact, those two elements, power and eroticism, are what drive the major genres in this artist’s oeuvre.  Ingres, a man who loved women, is in his element when commissioned to paint the female nude.  He is equally at ease with the powerful men of French society during, and after, the time of the Empire.  At 26 he had already received the commission and painted the official portrait of Napoleon as Emperor.  Based, in part, on medieval images of enthroned emperors such as Charlemagne and Otto III, his portrait of Napoleon is regal, grandiose, impressive, imposing, and god-like.  An early advocate of art as propaganda, Napoleon must have been pleased with Ingres’ depiction of him.    So little of the picture is the face of Napoleon that the likeness is fairly swallowed up in the regal paraphernalia of office.  But if you pause for…
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