Sex, Cash, and a Lot of Class

John Haber
in New York City

J. A. D. Ingres: Images of an Epoch

Critics tore into Ingres. Sure, he had a great vita. Try this one on a dealer now: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the top student of France's leading artist, portraitist to the wealthy of three countries, and painter of the Emperor himself enthroned. Oh, and a superb draftsman.

Still, the Academy looked on Ingres a bit like Clement Greenberg facing Andy Warhol. They celebrated sober precision, and Ingres, they complained, could hardly touch even the rich and powerful without exaggeration. Instead of heading the Academy, the painter found himself at the edge of the French empire, in Italy, charging for portrait drawings by the pose. Vicomtesse d'Haussonville (Frick Collection, photo by Richard di Liberto, New York, 1845)

Critics still will not let Ingres off the hook. He would have hated his current show, they insist. Ingres ached, they dutifully point out, for the recognition that came with grandeur. Master of the decades after Napoleon, in subject and in style, he wanted one to remember his history paintings—not unlike the plight of a genre painter, J. B. Greuze, a century before. All his life he longed to settle in Paris amid the acclaim of the establishment. No wonder Anita Brookner's account of Ingres and Romanticism stresses discontents and and unattainable longings.

The story nearly omits the dazzling visual display now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also misses Ingres's pivotal role in the turn of art inward, toward modernity. For its overwhelming beauty and for the course of art across an entire century, this show deserves a crowd.

A franc view of sex

Ingres worked strictly on a business proposition, portrait drawings by the piece, less for faces, more for full length. He did find time to mix patrons with friends—artists and musicians like himself, a passionate violinist. Still, every labor of love knew its value. For all the elegance of a dying age, Ingres documents a feudal class in exile subject to the laws of a growing marketplace. Call it a franc view of sex.

Ingres worked slowly. If the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville has an arm growing out of her stomach, it was not for lack of trying—or want of attention to reality. He knew that such apparent mistakes create that modern notion, a painter's style. (For the Frick Collection to lend this great work shows the small museum's newly vital role in New York art.) Studies note folds, rings, rarely backgrounds. Perhaps other painters sketched the rare landscape.

Did the jewelry signal his fascination with hands and decoration, a fascination he passed on to his pupils—or excuses to obscure his handling of anatomy, as the Met suggests? Either way, like the unusual arm, it signals Ingres's ability to highlight or obscure detail at will, so as to create a work's intense rhythms. Either way, too, the new-found sensuality of his work thrills me, and it persisted well into his seventies. It set the tone for the upper classes, but it influenced art's future as well. The sphinx-like mirror image of Mme. Moitessier's bust in London looks forward to Frederic Leighton or the Pre-Raphaelites.

Sex and the almighty franc—it sounds very modern, and it is. A play with mirrors also keeps the viewer on edge and constantly redirects one's eye, as it will for Manet and on into Modernism. Like art to come, Ingres also reacted to his age's view of women. Under his eye, they start to demand a portraiture and presence of their own.

When I say a woman's presence, I mean without a trace of macho stories, much as with Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun before him. Ingres loved history painting above all other genres, but he created a world apart from any history other than art's own. Early in his career, he pulled off some truly egregious puffery of Napoleon, first as consul, then as emperor. Yet even there, one finds scarcely a hint of narrative. Art again turns inward, to delight and challenge a new kind of viewer.

I mentioned Warhol on purpose. Sex, surfaces, and the inward eye: how does a social conservative adopt such modern values? This show takes him chronologically through a fascinating career. Start with his reaction to his teacher, Jacques Louis David.

The superficial revolution

At first one sees the same traits as in David's early Neoclassicism, much as with one of David's pupils, Anne-Louis Girodet, and akin to Jean-Antoine Houdon in sculpture: real poses, matte finish, the calmest of earth tones. Like the artistic mind of the revolution, the young Ingres modeled through shadow and scumbled textures. Near-frontal poses took on his mentor's strong foreheads and prominent noses.

Before long, Ingres transforms those elements into flashy poses and an exquisite finish, much like Antonio Canova in marble. He transferred idolatry for Napoleon to an effusive praise for the rich—and a love of painting's fineness for itself. He kept the dark tones, but he made them the palette of the richest colorist of his time.

The new technique, with its modeling through white highlights, has many roots. Ingres was looking backward, past the age of revolution, to Watteau's line and startling points of light. He loved drawing, and thin graphite layers often suggest pastel or watercolor. Ingres also knew portraiture's traditions cold, like the pose copied from Bronzino's Mannerism.

In a typical portrait, two arcs interlace. Set concave toward each other, they could come from the sitter's strong arms or the outlines of a torso, the vibrancy of hands or the drama of folds in clothing. Human bulk creates a third arc, for the third dimension. Ingres loves how all his arcs interpenetrate, like the arm of a chair and the sitter in Joseph-Antoine Moteldo's 1810 portrait, now in the Met. All this detail adds up to an intense realism combined with a wiry, polished, decorative surface.

Despite those early triumphs, Ingres got plain lousy reviews at first. Critics called his art "gothic and barbarous" for all its refinement, and indeed it helped launch the Gothic revival. He recreated the iconic art of the Middle Ages not as the dead past, but as romance. Ingres, the ultimate reactionary, helped to set the conventions of modernity. He even lived into the era of photos, which supplied the template for his final self-portrait.

After the bad reviews, Ingres sought another route to arbiter of taste for the generations to come. Like many another nineteenth-century artist, he headed off to Italy, under protection from Napoleon's rein, to become the portraitist one knows today. It was decades before the painter could return to Paris in triumph.

Reactionary or modern?

Where the curators talk of "Images of an Epoch," then, I see an epoch in transition. Ingres easily gets lost in platitudes or art history. The first make him out to be flawless, above the carping over the Academy. The second makes him transitional, between David and Delacroix, the classics and the Romantics. This show outlines the difficult path along the way—and beyond.

Perhaps Ingres had no interest in the next generation. He had no care for nature, loosened brushstrokes, or rebellion. He painted the emperor without narrative, but he could not have fixed on a good story anyhow. One finds no evidence that Napoleon granted him an audience before he set to work.

Still, his rejection by the critics sticks with me, along with his exile and cash on the line—along, too, with his surfaces, sensuality, and feminine ideals. They sound very much like the terms of art for the next 150 years. Indeed, his portraiture can sound deceptively like Richard Avedon's, until it draws one in for good.

Michael Fried has spoken of art's turning away from theater. He means away from big gestures, outsize poses, and overdrawn moral tales. The viewer comes out of the audience to become close to the work of art, lingering over it, absorbed in it, shocked by it. Something like that happens here.

In looking back, Ingres also shared more with his critics than either knew. In the age of Napoleon and after, people remembered the Enlightenment but distrusted revolution. David himself outlived his revolutionary ideals, all too ready to flatter the powerful. Like the Academy, too, Ingres still left every hair in place. Romanticism's brushwork and Modernism's rebellion alike seem far away. And yet he was already turning realism and revolution inward—to painting's surface.

One can never disentangle it all. All are there: Ingres the reactionary and Ingres the modern, the man who lived on past Delacroix and the next generation. Look again at the images of women.

Costumes without the drama

Ingres heavily softens those unidealized features. To plain faces, he gives angelic smiles, along with eyeballs so perfect that other artists would have had to use a compass. Even when he does "face painting" (as David never would), he starts to play down the solidity of bone and features. He offers up penetrating eyes and soft skin, reinforced by the delicate, decorative curves below. The lavish dresses and electric colors amount to costumes without the costume drama.

Woman, in other words, starts to get a life apart from men, but she stands for something altogether foreign and decorative. That associates her, moreover, with the painting—and so with the artist's alter ego. The artist's feminine unconscious was to become part of modernist dogma, from Picasso to de Kooning.

The show gives one the museum at its best, as public and scholarly institution. The Met pulls off a comprehensive display that scholars will consult for decades. The more than 160 works include every medium, from oil and polished drawings to the first graphite sketches in search of a pose.

For once, the Met makes good use of the ever-present wall text next to each work. Yes, it again blocks traffic, but for once it adds something from time to time. The show's subject matter helps. After all, portraiture takes a sitter, someone dead centuries ago and inaccessible without a little help. But the curators also weave stylistic notes and other insights.

The drawings look particularly good, although some paintings get harsh lighting, and both paintings and drawings hang rather too high. That height throws off the new relationship between art and viewer. Still, as images of an epoch go, one can take these deeply into one's own imagination.

Ingres took French art first from the Classicism of the academy to a record of the bourgeoisie. Even in a show of portraits, he would not stop there. With pleasure every step of the way, one sees him and French art pass as well through Romanticism to the modern era. Baudelaire and Degas praised him to the sky, and one can at last see why. See it and find out.

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"Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch" ran through January 2, 2000, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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