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Curse, Legacy or Both?

Stanley Meisler is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the classical French master of the 19th century, professed to abhor the painting of portraits. “I cannot stand them anymore,” he wrote a friend in 1841. “It is not to paint portraits that I returned to Paris.” “Cursed portraits!” he wrote another friend six years later. “They always prevent me from undertaking important things. . . .”

Yet he could not resist the appeal of power, wealth, friendship, beauty and fashion, and he spent much of a long lifetime crafting with painstaking care a series of astounding portraits that chronicle the era of bourgeois ascendancy in France for the six decades between the rise of Emperor Napoleon I and the decline of Emperor Napoleon III.

But the portraits are far more than a historical record. They overwhelm with breathtaking presence and luminosity. They brim with meticulous detail. They never flatter, yet, even when the sitter is plain, reach a mood that somehow seems sublime. The Ingres portraits are among the most beautiful ever created anywhere and at any time.

Americans can now have a rare look at a large number of the best of them. Assembled first at the National Gallery in London, an exhibition of 100 of his portraits--40 oil paintings and 60 graphite pencil drawings--opened last weekend at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is the first retrospective of the artist’s portraits ever shown in the United States.

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Titled “Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch,” the show remains in Washington until Aug. 22 and then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from Sept. 27 to Jan. 2, 2000.

The ambitious undertaking stemmed from a modest proposal. Ingres painted two portraits, one seated, one standing, of Madame Ines Moitessier, a buxom woman whom Ingres called “the beautiful and the good.” The standing, somewhat austere Madame Moitessier now belongs to Washington’s National Gallery; the seated, more appealing Madame Moitessier to London’s National Gallery.

Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings at the Washington museum, talked with his counterparts in London several years ago about the possibility of a joint exhibition of the two portraits. The idea of a retrospective of all the finest Ingres portraits, says Conisbee, “just grew from that.”

Ingres regarded himself as a painter of grand scenes from history, mythology, the Bible and the Orient who turned out portraits mainly to earn enough money to live comfortably while seeking commissions for his more important work.

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Scholars still prize the large paintings, and the public is still titillated by his erotic scenes of nudes in Turkish harems. But the subjects of most Ingres murals are too obscure for most modern viewers. The reputation of Ingres now rests mainly on his cursed portraits.

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Although Ingres spent his last years as a pillar of the Parisian art establishment, his path to these heights had been strewn with frustrations and the venom of critics.

Ingres, a short, squat man with dark, almost homely features, was born in 1780 in the rural town of Montaubon near Toulouse in southwestern France, the son of an artistic craftsman who worked as the local painter, decorator, sculptor and architect. The young Ingres showed an early flair for art and enrolled as a teenager in the Paris studio of Jacques-Louis David, the most celebrated painter of the time.

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Ingres first unveiled his early work at the Salon of 1806, the annual, official competitive exhibition in Paris, and was quickly dealt a rude slap. The critics lambasted his two main submissions, a lavish, adoring study of a godlike “Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne” that looks like pure kitsch now, and a far more subdued portrait of Madame Philibert Riviere with some of the traits that would mark his great portraits of the future--including a predilection for beautiful women of high society.

The attacks of the critics infuriated Ingres, who heard the news while in Rome on a scholarship. “I am the victim of ignorance, bad faith, calumny . . . ,” he wrote. “The scoundrels, they waited until I was away to assassinate my reputation.”

The angered Ingres remained in Italy for 18 years, at first painting portraits of the French administrators who ruled the occupied Italian states during the reign of Napoleon I. When Napoleon was defeated and dethroned, the French bureaucracy scurried home, and Ingres depended on rich British tourists who ordered graphite pencil portraits during their stop in Rome.

Ingres felt confident that he would emerge successfully from what he called these “years of slavery.” Wooing his future wife Madeleine Chapelle, whom he had never met, by correspondence in 1813, he wrote, “I have neither fortune nor a handsome face, but I dare say a distinguished and recognized talent, which needs only the first opportunity to flourish, and so I hope for fortune someday.”

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The return to Paris was triumphant. He had received a commission from the French government to paint a mural for the cathedral in his hometown. This historical painting of King Louis XIII vowing allegiance to the Virgin Mary in the 17th century dominated the Salon of 1824.

“The name of Raphael (unworthy as I might be) is mentioned in the same breath as mine,” Ingres wrote a friend. “I’m being congratulated on all sides, loved and honored much more than I ever expected.”

Except for a six-year interlude, when he returned to Rome as director of the French Academy, the institute he once attended on scholarship, Ingres remained in Paris for the rest of his life as a painter, teacher, senator and official of the government art establishment. He accepted the Rome appointment only after a new rash of insults against a historical painting that he exhibited at the Salon of 1834. He would boycott the Salons from then on.

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The Paris years produced his finest portraits. Aside from the two Madame Moitessiers, the current exhibition includes three of the most renowned: the portraits of Louis-Francois Bertin, completed in 1832; the Vicomtesse d’Haussonville, 1845; and the Princesse de Broglie, 1853.

Bertin was the publisher of an influential Paris newspaper, and the portrait bristles with power, displaying all the self-confidence of a 66-year-old self-made man leaning forward intently, his strong hands clasping his thighs.

Bertin’s daughter complained that Ingres had turned “a great lord” into “a fat farmer.” But hardly anyone agreed with her. With incredible detail showing unruly locks of hair and a waistcoat near bursting because of Bertin’s girth, Ingres had fashioned an icon of the new ruling class of the 19th century. Painter Edouard Manet would later call this portrait, “the Buddha of the Bourgeoisie--affluent, satiated, triumphant.”

The Bertin portrait was so successful that Ingres, who no longer needed the income, faced an incessant deluge of entreaties from would-be sitters from then on.

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Ingres painted the Vicomtesse d’Haussonville, the granddaughter of writer Madame de Stael, when he was 65 and she 27. Adolph Thiers, a future French president, told the Vicomtesse, “Monsieur Ingres must be in love with you to have painted you that way.” Ingres dismissed this as a “wicked remark.”

But whether or not Ingres was in love, the portrait has seduced many a critic into lovesick raptures. Poet Charles Baudelaire ranked the fully clothed portrait of the Vicomtesse with the nude odalisques of Ingres as “works of a profound voluptuousness.”

“He applies himself to the slightest beauties with the keenness of a surgeon,” Baudelaire wrote about Ingres. “He follows the lightest undulations of their outlines with the slavishness of a lover.” Ingres created a Vicomtesse d’Haussonville with a coquettish and, at the same time, angelic air. Her round face of young innocence reveals the trace of a mischievous smile, while flirtatious fingers play under her chin.

The Vicomtesse, who would later write romantic novels, accepted Ingres’ depiction of her as a woman of two moods. In her memoirs, she described herself as imbued with a “taste for society, for flirtation and for pleasure.” “There were two persons inside me,” she went on, “the good and the evil, and the evil usually overcame the good.”

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Ingres would distort the bodies of his models for effect, and he gave the Vicomtesse a gargantuan right arm so that it could cross her waist and anchor the left arm reaching high under her chin. The result is so curvaceous and pleasing that only a stickler for realism would complain about the distortion.

In his 70s, Ingres complained bitterly as he painted the Princesse de Broglie, one of his last portraits. Suffering from an eye infection, he lamented, “If only they knew the trouble I make for myself with their portraits, they would feel sorry for me.”

The Princesse was the sister-in-law of the Vicomtesse d’Haussonville, but the two women, according to Conisbee, “hated each other,” and, in fact, were very different. Ingres painted the Princesse, who would die from tuberculosis seven years later, as a handsome, shy, ascetic woman without a tad of flirtation.

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Ingres reveled in the texture and color of textiles, and he took great care to depict the folds of the Princesse’s blue satin dress, the filigree that edged her shoulders and hair, and the gold damask sofa on which she leaned. “What a delicious harmony,” critic Theophile Gautier wrote, “those pale and pearly arms setting themselves off from the blue satin of the dress.” The portrait has always remained a favorite of Ingres’ admirers.

Ingres was a skilled amateur violinist, and he did not need much coaxing to turn out portraits of some of his musical friends. The exhibition includes an oil portrait of Luigi Cherubini, regarded in the 19th century as one of the finest composers of his day, and pencil portraits of three musicians and composers who are now better known than Cherubini: Niccolo Paganini, Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod.

The painter’s flair for music was so celebrated that the expression “the violin of Ingres” is now used in the French language to connote a passionate avocation.

Although Ingres refused to flatter and often lengthened arms or even puffed them up to create a striking, beautiful scene, he rarely received a complaint from a sitter. Madame Moitessier, however, was upset by the fleshy arms in the standing portrait.

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She did not dare complain directly to the painter, however. But two friends conspired to persuade Ingres to slim them somewhat in the seated portrait. “The lady has big arms, it is true,” one friend wrote to the other, “but that is one more reason not to exaggerate them. They could even be rendered a little less than life size, and no one would reproach the painter.”

In the end, Ingres, who admired the plumpness of Madame Moitessier, gave in, slimming the arms somewhat for the second portrait, or at least allowing them less prominence.

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When Ingres died in 1867 at the age of 86, the art world knew him as the champion of classical art. He believed in the perfection of Greek and Roman forms, the divine achievements of Raphael and the artist’s need to master drawing above all. He hectored his art classes with the slogan, “The ancients and Raphael, the ancients and Raphael.”

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In the last decades of his life, he feuded continually with romantic muralist Eugene Delacroix. Ingres, according to Conisbee, believed he was defending “classic restraint against romantic excess.”

In a sense, he represented a conservative tradition that the Impressionists and Modernists would rebel against. Yet Impressionist Edgar Degas would buy a good number of his portraits. Pablo Picasso would paint American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein in the pose of Bertin and would often allude to Ingres portraits in other work, even in some Cubist paintings. Other admirers included Henri Matisse, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning.

Future painters might reject the rigidity of his philosophy, but they would not reject Ingres. *

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“Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch,” National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and 6th Street N.W., Washington, D.C., through Aug. 22. (202) 737-4215.


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