Critic’s Notebook: Ingres’ ‘Comtesse d’Haussonville’ @ Norton Simon Museum


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Louise d’Haussonville arrived in Pasadena the other day, and it’s always good to see her. Always strange too.

One of the greatest portraits by one of the greatest portrait painters — French genius Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who didn’t like painting portraits despite his knack for it — the picture captivates for a host of peculiar reasons. One is its color.


Colin B. Bailey, chief curator of New York’s Frick Collection, which inaugurates its half of an exchange program with the Norton Simon Museum with this first-ever loan of the famous painting to California, has aptly described the picture’s palette as “a rainbow of blues.”

Blue is the color of the amazing satin evening dress that first grabs attention to “Comtesse d’Haussonville” (1845), finished nearly five years after Ingres first met the doe-eyed young beauty, a young wife of 22, in Rome. The dress, with its rustling folds, intricate design and panoply of light reflections is a virtual catalog of possible blue shades.

There’s more. Blue is also the color of the wall paint, the velvet mantle-cover she leans against, its fringe and a tassel, the Sèvres and other porcelains on the mantle, assorted flowers, the pouch for her fan, the bell-rope to call servants, the paisley-like pattern on the gold and red cashmere shawl draped over a chair, gemstones in her jewelry, Louise’s limpid eyes, even the pale shadows beneath her eyes and along the hand she holds at her chin.

All these and more encompass the primary color’s full range, starting with delicate azure and ending in deep indigo. Much of it is doubled by the reflection in the big gilded mirror behind her.

It’s tempting to think of Ingre’s extraordinary choice of chromatic display in symbolic rather than simply decorative terms. Nineteenth-century French painters were enamored of all things political, and Louise was from a grand political family — the great-granddaughter of Louis XVI’s finance minister, the granddaughter of the brilliant essayist and salon hostess Mme. de Staël and the daughter of an eminent liberal statesman. Her husband was a diplomat, son of a distinguished soldier. “The blues,” so-called because of their uniforms, had been the troops of the revolutionary government.

Whatever the case, looking at Louise is like watching the sea’s shifting colors. Lost in the reverie, you awake with a start when you notice the 4 1/3-foot-high painting’s strangest feature. The countess, who is roughly life-size, rests her left elbow on her right hand, which is draped across her midriff. Yet her right arm doesn’t grow from the shoulder, as physiology dictates, but from the middle of her torso.

Her sleeve-draped right arm passes behind her raised left forearm, the line continuing into the blue satin bodice that hugs her shoulder. Visually, Ingres connects Louise’s right arm to her left shoulder, a physically impossible switcheroo that has the salubrious effect of heightening the sense of folding one’s arms. The maneuver is echt-Ingres — a composition’s artful perfection, anatomy be darned.

With Ingres’ greatest portraits you find yourself seduced, then abandoned, then marveling at the painter’s amazing capacities to make you believe his fictions.

This unfolding sequence of thoughts is reflected in Louise’s contemplative pose, where her chin rests on a hand whose index finger extends beneath her jaw. The gesture’s importance can be seen in the mirror where Ingres reflects it — even though Louise’s body would have blocked it.

Critic Théophile Thoré, Ingres’ contemporary, immediately recognized the pose’s source in “antique statues symbolizing thought or private meditation.” The haunting young woman is wedged between the mirror-reflection behind her and the reflection happening in the viewer out front.

At the Simon, “Comtesse d’Haussonville” is accompanied by two Ingres drawings also loaned by the Frick, one a study for the not-so-simple folds in her dress. (Ingres apparently made about 80 drawings for the portrait, 15 of which are known.) There’s also the Simon’s own early Ingres portrait of a young baron, painted when the artist was just 25.

An added treat is the surprising copy of the Louvre Museum’s 1819 Ingres, “Angelica at the Rock,” painted six decades later by an 18-year-old Georges Seurat. The worried nude, chained to a boulder, swoons. Seurat painted the copy a half-dozen years before he ventured into the very different Post-Impressionist color-dots of “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”; the work’s stately evocation of an ancient Roman or Egyptian frieze resonates with Ingres’ linear classicism.

Downstairs, Simon curator Leah Lehmbeck has assembled “Gaze: Portraiture After Ingres,” a sprawling installation of 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and prints, opening with an 1874 Édouard Manet portrait of his wife and continuing through Marcel Duchamp’s 1964 defacement of a Leonardo da Vinci reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a scribbled-pencil mustache and goatee. Gathered from the Simon’s collection, plus a few loans, the show is an amiable ramble through portraiture’s myriad Modern manifestations.

Still, “Comtesse d’Haussonville” is the main event. Her heirs put the great painting on the market to pay estate taxes, and the New York museum bought it for $125,000 in 1927. (That’s the bargain equivalent of about $1.5 million today.) The Frick Collection can’t lend anything that Henry Clay Frick himself acquired, but he died in 1919. The timing quirk has allowed “blue girl” to come to town, where she visits until Jan. 25.

-- Christopher Knight

Ingres’ Comtesse d’Haussonville,” Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Noon-6 p.m. Sat.-Mon. and Wed.- Thu., noon-9 Fri. $8. Ends Jan. 25. (626) 449-6840.