"Portraits of Ingres: Image of an Epoch," at the National Gallery of Art, May 23-Aug. 22, 1999, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 20565.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres felt that making portraits was "a considerable waste of time," but for much of his life portraiture paid the bills. This beautiful exhibition features 38 portrait paintings and 60 drawings that reveal Ingres to be a compelling but stubbornly singular artist. This singularity grew from several sources -- his mentor Jacques-Louis David, Raphael, an idolatry for classical Greece and a Byzantine obsessiveness.
The son of an artist, Ingres began his long life in the tumult of post-revolutionary France -- his earliest known signed drawing dates to 1789, the year of the storming of the Bastille. By the time of his death in 1867, France's Second Empire was ending in chaos.
Ingres' career coincided with the invention of photography, but co-curator Philip Conisbee finds no mention of photographs or the camera lucida in the reminiscences of Ingres' many sitters. Looking at his painted and drawn representations, one is struck first by the eerie, arms-length scrutiny -- both mercilessly objective and tenderly intimate -- that is the artist's trademark.
What we see here is a photographic sensibility in advance of the fact. While Andy Warhol ironically stated "I am a camera," Ingres could, with greater plausibility, have boasted that "the camera is Ingres." But the camera can lie, and so could Ingres. The crablike hands of Louis-François Bertin and the snakelike neck of Madame Leblanc reveal Ingres' willingness to bend the shape of his sitter in order to characterize personality.
Failures, while few, are notable. In Ingres' best paintings, each of life's details matters. At his worst, as in his early portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, he is a descriptive busybody, inventing a host of technical devices to convey the elegance of gold brocade while recording the king's face as a grim mask. Ingres made this overly ambitious painting on spec, but Napoleon wasn't buying. This setback sent the artist, like an exile, out of France for nearly two decades.
The drawings, shown in greater depth than at the London venue, are revelatory. Commissioned portraits, many made when Ingres' precarious finances force him to cater to an expatriate French and English clientele in Rome and Florence, show the artist's ability to clarify the details of personality into a series of lines. This is not the foreshortening technique of a caricaturist, but Ingres' own archaic form of psychological scrutiny.
Of equal importance, though fewer in number, are the artist's working studies for finished paintings, which show how hard Ingres worked even the smallest figurative element in order to gain the languid naturalness evident in his best portraits.
For Ingres, God was in the details. Perhaps that is why no "school of Ingres" emerged to rebut Impressionism. Yet even Delacroix, his rival and doppelganger, in his journals paid close attention to Ingres, alternating vitriol ("highly ridiculous, the complete expression of an incomplete mind") with high praise ("the handling is that of the masters; it's done with nothing, and yet everything is here"). Ingres did not return the favor; he loathed Delacroix as "the apostle of ugliness."
Baudelaire championed Delacroix as herald of the modern sensibility; but he also felt that Ingres' portraits were "his greatest, most legitimate success." The exhibition catalogue cites a host of artists, from Degas (who collected Ingres in bulk), to Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close, who have been affected by Ingres' portraits.
Looking into the mirror in Madame Moitessier Seated (upon which Ingres worked, in fits and starts, for 12 years), one can clearly see, in the unreal reflection of the precisely rendered portrait, the foreshadowing of Picasso's post-Cubist classicism, and much more.
"Portraits of Ingres: Image of an Epoch" was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the National Gallery, London, where it premiered, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will be on view Oct. 5, 1999-Apr. 25, 2000.
CHRISTOPHER FRENCH is an artist and critic who lives in Washington, D.C.