Subversive titan of classicism

Portraits by Ingres - Ingres in Fashion

March 26, 1999

Over the past two decades there has been a sea-change in art book publishing. Until about 1975 the "big" art book would be an "international co-edition", devoted to a theme such as impressionism or cubism or a revised view of a major artist such as Rembrandt or Picasso, made economically viable, ie publishable at a price the general public could afford, by printing in several languages simultaneously with a common set of illustrations to spread the cost of origination.

Such books are now relatively rare and have been largely replaced by the catalogue of a huge exhibition, whose own massive costs for transport, insurance, etc, are shared among several great galleries; in the case of Ingres, the National Gallery in London (where the current exhibition will run until April 25), the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (closing date January 2 2000). These powerful galleries with their huge promotional budgets and their undoubted drawing power in turn share, at least indirectly, the colossal origination costs of catalogues that are now appreciably more substantial than the old co-edition art books. This Ingres catalogue has nearly 600 large pages and nearly 350 superb illustrations, many of them in colour. The traditional art book would have been written by a single author, or perhaps two writers, working in their own time and, deservedly, being paid royalties - thus, perfectly properly, increasing the retail price of a book sold through traditional booksellers and wholesalers, who would have required significant discounts, thus driving the price to the public up further.

The exhibition catalogue is written, often by as many as a dozen authors, most of whom are museum curators, legitimately producing material of enormous scholarly value on office time, while enjoying their professional salaries. Thus no royalties. The sales of the catalogue, at least in its paperback form, are vast if the exhibition is successful. Since they are sold more or less exclusively in the exhibiting museums, they are therefore not subject to booksellers' discounts. Hence this particular Ingres catalogue can be sold at the almost absurdly cheap price of Pounds 28 in paperback (compare it, with its sewn binding and superb, permanent paper, with a 300-page novel with a glued binding and execrable paper that will turn yellow in a year, and could well crumble in 20 years, at Pounds 17). Even the hardcover Ingres, created largely for the benefit of discount-claiming booksellers, costs only Pounds 45. Yet if this were a traditional art book, sold without benefit of the exhibiting museums, it would have to be economically priced at at least Pounds 300. So, long live the National Gallery and its peers and the New York publisher Abrams, which produced the book; and may serious art lovers buy while stocks last.

Apart from the usual appurtenances of a catalogue, there are nine main chapters and a useful chronology, bibliography, etc. These range from the magisterial Robert Rosenblum on "Ingres's portraits and their muses" via Philip Conisbee on the journey "Montauban-Toulouse-Paris, 1780-1806" and the same author's "Rome, 1806-1820" to Gary Tinterow's "Paris, 1841-1867". Our National Gallery's curator of 19th-century art, Christopher Riopelle, covers "Florence, 1820-1824" and "Rome, 1835-1841". As a practical division of labour, with other chapters by other distinguished hands, this works admirably.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born at Montauban on August 29 1780 and died of double pneumonia, aged 86, in his apartment on the Quai Voltaire in Paris on January 14 1867, a few days after doing a tracing of Giotto's Entombment of Christ . If his contemporaries, Delacroix and Géricault, were the giants of French Romanticism, Ingres was the titan of classicism and, as Marcel Brion observed in his Romantic Art: "Ingres would have been annoyed to have been called a Romantic, but his classicism was always an arbitrarily adopted manner rather than the product of his temperament." Brion emphasised this view by putting on the jacket of his book Ingres's stunning portrait of his painter friend Granet, standing posed, book in hand, against the majestic roofscape of Rome. Perhaps Brion has a point, since the thought behind the picture is clearly archetypally Romantic while, in its execution, it is a prime example, in its polished technical gloss, of classicist perfection, done while Ingres was still in his twenties, having studied under Jacques-Louis David and having already surpassed his master.

Yet the painting of Granet came after Ingres's two portraits of Napoleon. Of the first, Napoleon as First Consul of 1804, Rosenblum observes that "the thirty-five-year-old emperor-to-be is shown as he appeared in Liège on August 1 1803, wearing a consular uniform rendered with such precision of red velvet and gilded ornament that we feel it could almost be lifted right out of the painting and placed on a mannequin in a museum vitrine".

In fact, this portrait of Napoleon is somehow almost sympathetic to that monstrous ego; it is painted with clarity and understanding yet eschews the characteristics that glare out at us in the later portrait.

Ingres painted Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne in 1806. This is a controversial painting in that there is some doubt as to whether it was commissioned (like its predecessor) or whether it was done by Ingres on speculation. Be that as it may, it was bought by the Corps Législatif just before its exhibition at the Salon. One can only assume that the purchasers were overwhelmed by its size (it is eight and a half feet high) and the virtuosity and opulence of the gold-encrusted robes, the glittering symbols of office, the verisimilitude of the throne etc. All this doubtless blinded them and made them swallow Ingres's skilful allusions to Jupiter, so that they ignored what seems to be the astounding psychological acuity of the 26-year-old painter. The face of Bonaparte is cold, haughty, self-obsessed and cruel. It is plain for all to see that the trappings of his power are bolstering the will of the despot who nearly had all of Europe in his grasp. Rarely can so superficially "official" looking a portrait have borne so accurate and subversive a charge.

Ingres certainly understood power yet, as the second Napoleon indicates, he knew how not to pander to it. If one looks at the two versions of the 1842 portrait of the heir to the throne, the duke of Orléans, Ingres's characteristic mastery of the surface dazzle of uniforms and decorations does little to redeem the plain, entirely undistinguished face. The duke is clearly neither intelligent nor agreeable, and Ingres, like Sargent two or three generations later, had no difficulty in making imposing pictures of the great and the wealthy, while quite clearly stripping their unappealing characters bare.

This is not to say that Ingres always painted the powerful with dislike or scorn. His most famous male portrait, that of the newspaper man Louis-Francois Bertin, is redolent of respect and sympathy; possibly because Bertin, owner of the Journal des débats , criticised Napoleon who exiled him, irony of ironies, to Elba. Bertin was inter alia also the man who put the bread on the table of Hector Berlioz by printing his criticisms when he could not earn enough from his music. Bertin , apart from being a celebration of the new power of the tenacious bourgeoisie, is simply one of the greatest paintings of the age, and one can happily stand in front of it for long periods, getting to know a man of formidable intellect and integrity. (How fascinating to contemplate a Lucien Freud portrait of Rupert Murdoch...) While, obviously, the exhibition is full of great paintings and is a show of far greater interest than the over-hyped Monet at the Royal Academy, the book is full of serendipitous surprises. In the entry on Gounod one finds quoted from the composer's reminiscences of Ingres in Rome: "M. Ingres played the violin. He was no performer, and certainly no virtuoso." One would like to think that this is the origin of that invaluable phrase the violon d'Ingres (to convey the idea of a great man's second interest, eg the poetry of Michelangelo or the paintings of Lorca); on top of that, the chronology mentions that between the ages of 14 and 16 Ingres not only studied the violin, but actually played with the Toulouse orchestra.

Above all, the exhibition and, inevitably, the book glorify Ingres's portraits of women. To find the two versions of Mme Moitessier side by side in a book is a commonplace; to find the Washington National Gallery picture in the same small room as the London National Gallery portrait is beyond serendipity. It represents a unique art-historical opportunity and an object lesson in artistic sensuality, from the elaborate richness of the clothes to the luxuriousness with which her ample flesh is painted. The book, being a classic example of Andre Malraux's "museum without walls", gives us some 20 supporting illustrations of details, sketches, studies and related works by other hands.

Similarly, what is to me the most beautiful woman of all those he painted, the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, is accompanied here by 13 other related illustrations, and the miniature essay about the sitter, as with all its companions in the book, is a model of succinct and always relevant information. See particularly the mysterious, enigmatic portrait of Napoleon's sister, Princess Caroline Murat, against the background of the erupting Vesuvius. (Oh Freud, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) To my tastes, this is a far more interesting and captivating woman, and painting, than the Mona Lisa .

Ingres's portrait of his wife, both as picture and as a mini-chapter of the book, repays close attention. Given the louche reputations of great painters who regularly portrayed women and who could produce such erotic masterpieces as the Grande Odalisque and the Bather of Valpinçon , we have here a model of uxoriousness in the tender, open serenity of Mme Ingres's face in the 1814 portrait. This was done shortly after one of the strangest of marriages began. Ingres was in Rome and became greatly enamoured of a hostess who was married. Sensing his tastes as well as his confusion, she told him to propose to her cousin back in France who looked exactly like her and would therefore be a perfect substitute for his currently unrequited passion. Ingres did as he was told, the cousin came to Rome, and the two of them lived in perfect happiness, apart from the lack of children, for the next 36 years until Mme Ingres died.

Tinterow and Conisbee and their colleagues have produced, alongside this great exhibition, what is in all senses a stupendous book that no serious student of 19th-century painting can do without.

Ingres in Fashion - a neat double entendre in that title - is written by the head of the history of dress section of the Courtauld. This typically impeccably designed and printed book from Yale University Press is a most timely publication. It is a perfect adjunct to the exhibition catalogue and greatly adds to one's enjoyment of the exhibition. Fashion shows are also exhibitions, no matter how evanescent and no matter that 99.99 per cent of them are of drivelling inconsequence beyond their brief plugs for conspicuous consumption at a specific historical moment. What Aileen Ribeiro gives us is a brilliant account of the role of fashion in Ingres's depiction of his female sitters and, indeed of his perceptions of female beauty.

How shrewd and engaging of the author to have as her frontispiece a detail from La Grande Odalisque , one of the most ravishing and erotic nudes ever painted by a great artist. The detail concentrates on her right hand, holding the closest thing there is to a garment, her elaborate peacock-feather fly whisk. This detail enables one, as in a film, to zoom in on an even more specific image than the picture as a whole. It emphasises Ingres's mastery of eroticism and fashion, and the accessories with which women titillate and stimulate desire, which is what all fashion - male or female - is ultimately about. The author helpfully brings in illustrations of other artists whose work illuminates her theme, from Francois Boucher to Henri Matisse, from Franz Winterhalter to Sir Thomas Lawrence. She rightly includes jewellery in her view of fashion. There is great erudition here, but the learning is worn lightly, and the book is a delight to anyone interested in clothes, in art and, above all, in women.

My only serious reservation about this work, as a mere man, is that the author has restricted herself to the clothing of Ingres's female sitters. His was a peacock age in which men's apparel was also often spectacular, and rendered by Ingres with just as subtle and severe an attention to detail. If the women were showing off the wealth of their husbands and families, as well as their elegance and up-to-the-minute dress sense, so the men were demonstrating their power, authority and political position, except of course for Bertin, who was emphasising his different kind of power, that of the man so influential that he does not need to devote any attention whatsoever to his sartorial appearance. Just look at the detail of Napoleon's robes, the richness of Devillers's uniform, the dandification of Granet. Perhaps Ribeiro's next searching study, albeit inevitably somewhat shorter, should be devoted to costume in Ingres's men. In a society such as ours that prides itself on sexual equality, why should we be denied the wit and elegance she could bring to this topic?

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch

Editor - Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee
ISBN - 0 87099 891 9
Publisher - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Price - £28.00
Pages - 596

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