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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 a moment to compare this portrait with one of Ingres’ male portraits you can see that his formula for portraiture is in place. The sitter’s head is centered between the left and right sides of the canvas, and as seen here, it is generally placed in the upper quarter of the canvas in the case of a ¾ or full-length portrait. That leaves lots of room to elaborate on the richesse of the costume, the elegance of the bearing and thus, the status of the sitter. Of course, the emperor had the largest canvas and his signs of status were unique to him.
Other sitters of lower status, but still within the inner circles of power, display their position with costume, gesture, ambiance, and jewels. It’s hard not to be knocked out by the elegance of the women’s gowns, this at a time when all those yards of fabric were sewn by hand. Seen below, and in this exhibition, is the exquisite portrait of Madame de Senonnes, 1814-16.
The jewelry is equally exquisite with fingers adorned by multiple rings and bodies decorated with bejeweled gold parures. There are collectors of nineteenth-century jewelry who could write tomes based on the jewelry painted by Ingres.
Many drawings are presented in this exhibition, most of which probably served as studies for oil portraits. They are generally not off-hand jottings, but are complete works done in minute detail that could easily be used by a well trained assistant who might later do the major part of the work on a canvas touched up and completed by the master (a standard workshop practice since the Renaissance). However, it gives us a chance to see the clarity of Ingres’ style and the sureness of his line.
The painting of portraits was Ingres’ bread and butter. Once he received the imprimatur of the emperor, his waiting list of patrons was assured its continuity. During his extended tenure in Rome he got the patronage of the expatriate French community in Italy. Upon his first return to Paris in the 1820’s, he had tout Paris at his atelier’s door. The men who paid for their portraits, and for the portraits of their wives, also wanted pictures of other women, women in less extravagant guises, women who could arouse erotic desires. They wanted paintings of nude women, not cold statues derived from classical art, but women with implied sexual desires of their own, women whose bodies were close enough to touch at the foreground of the picture. The bath, the harem, the bath in the harem; all became ideal excuses for the exposure of female flesh. The implied eroticism of the harem was a particular favorite, with its “oriental woman” as the repository of all that was denied by the repressive European social mores. These women knew how to please a man.
Ingres was yet in Rome and in his twenties when he established the three basic themes for his paintings of the female nude: the reclining nude (La Grande Odalisque, 1814, shown above), the nude seen from the back (La Baigneuse Valpicon, 1808), and the submissive or bound female (La Livraison d’Angelique, 1819). These were in the artist’s repertoire for the rest of his career, not withstanding various changes in tonality and emphasis. The display of the ideal female body remained a crowd pleaser. As an exercise in aesthetics try to run through other nudes in the history of art – in the seventeenth century there is the dimpled fat on Rubens’ women and the folds of adipose tissue on Rembrandt’s models, in the eighteenth century you find the slight-hipped and pert breasted women painted by Boucher and Fragonard. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Ingres returns to the Renaissance ideal established by Giorgione and Titian: slender torso with ample hips and breasts.
There is no need to speculate on the influence of Titian, because Ingres’ copy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538, done in 1822, is included in this show. How nice it would be to see the real Titian, or even one of those great life-size reproductions by Polaroid, next to the Ingres. It would tell us a lot about their differences. For example the position of the figure is duplicated as is the hairstyle, but the wispy three-dimensionality of her hair does not translate into Ingres’ style of painting, nor does the warm tonality of her skin. Titian’s warm glazes are not part of Ingres’ style. More importantly, in this early Titian we would see evidence of his brushwork, particularly on the side of the bedding facing the viewer. Ingres has chosen to ignore that aspect of Titian’s style while assiduously copying the perspective and the color scheme. We have to wait for Manet’s rendition of the Titian Venus (Olympe, 1863) before we get to see evident brushstrokes.
You don’t find visible brushstrokes in Renaissance painting in Rome and if Ingres’ nudes are inspired by Titian, his religious paintings are inspired by Raphael.
The direct simplicity of the Italian’s compositions and the religious intensity shown without overly emotionalizing the scene appealed to his French patrons. Religious art was no longer suppressed after the return of the monarchy in France. Several of his commissions are on display here and the influence of Raphael is evident most strongly in Le Voeu de Louis XIII, 1824 (shown above), where he borrowed the composition of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Why mess with a sure thing? Apparently not particularly interested in inventive compositions, Ingres was content to repeat a successful composition rather than improve upon it or do variations. You may already know The Madonna of the Host, 1854, from its place on the ground floor at the Orsay. That painting and two others just like it are included here.
One last, frequently neglected, aspect of Ingres’ oeuvre is displayed here as well. He participated in the early nineteenth century fascination with a romanticized conception of the medieval era. His paintings of imaginary royal confrontations and fanfares at court are the least interesting aspects of his oeuvre. He went through the paces but did not bring much intensity to these paintings.
Indeed, you will come back again and again to the portraits and the nudes. At the end of the exhibition one portrait and one nude may draw your attention as they did mine. In a room with only five portraits, all of them women, one I’d never seen before struck me: the Portrait of Baronne James de Rothschild, (shown below) still in private hands.
Ingres harkens back to the neutral background David used in his famous portrait of Marat. The head is still centered between the verticals but for a ¾ length portrait, the head is unusually close to the middle of the canvas. However, the directness of her gaze creates the intimacy strongly associated with the portraits of Ingres, and his careful depiction of her gown, and above all her jewels, makes this a fine and mature example of the artist’s continued style.
The second late example, a nude, or rather a group of nudes assembled for the delectation of the voyeur, is at the exit of the show. Le Bain Turc, 1859-63, was painted for a patron who rivals only King Philip of Spain for his commissions of female nudes. I refer to the Turkish ambassador to France, who paid Courbet for two of his most lascivious and licentious paintings and owned this multi-demonstrative display of nudity. In Ingres he found an artist who, even in his old age, was a man who did love women and knew how to show them in their best light, clothed or nude.
Bottom line: Don’t miss this exhibition.
At the Louvre until May 15th. Same hours as the Museum- every day but Tuesday 9- 6pm, late to 10 on Wed. and Fri. Metro: Palais Royal /Musée du Louvre. The exhibition tends to get crowded so try to go early in the day or late in the afternoon, or expect to spend time waiting to enter.
Deb Markow’s web site is: www.artalks.com
Copyright © Deb Markow