Ingres & Company
Strut Their Stuff
At the Morgan
Fans of the endangered art and craft of drawing had a visual feast at a banquet laid out by The Morgan Library & Museum . The appetizer–taken from the museum’s own holdings–was an array of seventeen images on paper (plus three letters) by the not-so-neoclassical master, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres .
On display in the Morgan’s intimate Thaw gallery just off the atrium, the exhibit led off with a small graphite drawing, Portrait of a Young Boy, whose subject is not much younger than Ingres was at the time. Undated, the skillfully rendered profile portrait, perhaps a copy from a print, is all the more remarkable considering that the artist “was a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old student at the Académie Royale in Toulouse when he executed this roundel portrait.”1
Developmentally, early adolescence does not lend itself to such feats of sustained attention and concentration. Hormones rage and limbs grow faster than the torso, resulting in emotional turmoil and physical awkwardness. Yet even at eleven, Ingres could skillfully copy a drawing. His earliest known work, Jean Moulet (1791), obediently replicated in red chalk from a profile portrait by his artist father, demonstrates the child’s talent and the parent’s determination to foster it.2
Born in 1780 in the south of France, the eldest of seven children, Ingres received encouragement and instruction in art at home. In the same year as that first drawing, he was whisked off to Toulouse for formal schooling. Chaperoned by his father, who seemed to have made a project of developing the boy’s artistic ability, the young Ingres earned several prizes in drawing during his six years in attendance at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture.3
The graphite portraits comprising most of the exhibit at The Morgan attest to Ingres’s skill as a draftsman. Appreciated by today’s art lovers, they held little value for the artist who produced them. Instead, Ingres aspired to create magnificent, acclaim-winning history paintings, in his time the genre at the top of the artistic food chain.
In pursuit of that goal, the young artist advanced to Paris in 1797, joining the studio of then art star Jacques-Louis David. Within two years, Ingres qualified for admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the prestigious school of fine arts. By 1801 he had won the Prix de Rome, an award that included funding for study abroad in the eponymous city. Unfortunately, because of France’s precarious financial situation–a result of recent internal tumult and too many wars–the artist had to wait until 1806 to travel.
Shortly before leaving, the up-and-coming Ingres became engaged to Julie Forestier. His affection for her is evident in The Forestier Family (1806), drawn for her before his departure to Italy. Julie’s uncle (left) and her father (right) gaze admiringly at the star of the production, whose hand on the keyboard speaks to her own talents, while her mother, wearing an expression of smug satisfaction, looks out at her daughter’s catch. Curiously, Ingres depicted the exiting maid (left) casting a mildly disapproving glance at the proceedings. Despite the de rigueur symbol of loyalty–the well-drawn dog–this graphically celebrated relationship was not to endure.
Soon after arriving for his four-year term at the Académie de France in Rome, Ingres had several paintings accepted to the 1806 Paris Salon. Undoubtedly looking forward to rave reviews, when word reached him about the critics’ less-than-favorable comments, he witnessed his dreams of glory dissolve.
Angered at the French art elites for their inability to recognize his worth, he determined never to exhibit at their Salon again.4 Deciding to stay in Rome, he wrote to Julie and broke off their engagement; she eventually sent him back the commemorative drawing of happier times.5
Though history paintings garnered more respect, commissions produced income. Having already established himself as a portrait painter, Ingres could peddle those wares within the French community in Rome–hence the many astutely observed and sensitively drawn graphite portraits constituting the majority of work in the Thaw Gallery.
Painting commissions followed, rebuilding Ingres’s self-confidence. By 1814, he was ready to again send work to the Salon in Paris. The disappointing critical response that followed seems not to have deterred the French aristocracy in Italy from bestowing lucrative painting commissions on the artist. The ensuing financial success enabled him to comfortably establish two studios in central Florence by 1820.6
After finally gaining the critics’ blessings for work he brought to Paris in 1824 and then receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honor, Ingres resettled in Paris. At the time, the city of the Salon and the École was home to a crowd of artists engaged in challenging the prevailing neoclassicism of David.
Evidence of that desire to break with the past was on view at The Morgan just a brief stroll away from the Ingres show where, in a large gallery, the visitor could wander among eighty examples of nineteenth century French drawings in David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre . There, keeping Ingres company, were luminaries from in and out of the French academy.
One of the pieces included, The Artist’s Left Hand (1824) by Théodore Géricault, a brilliant painter (think cnt_id=10134198673226914&CONTENT<>cnt_id=10134198673327664&CURRENT_LLV_CHEMINEMENT<>cnt_id=10134198673327664&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>Raft of the Medusa) whose life was truncated by a riding accident and recurring illness, illustrates an artist’s passion for his craft. On his deathbed, Géricault occupied time creating pictures of his hand, the only accessible subject, by tracing and then watercoloring it.7 The act of making art absorbed the ailing artist’s attention, and provided a respite from suffering.
Historically, drawing was used primarily for preparatory studies leading to finished paintings. When several sketches coalesced into a final version, an artist prepared it for transfer. One technique–squaring–involved drawing a grid on the finished image and a proportional one on the support, be it canvas, panel or wall.
In The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines (ca, 1799), David worked out his first ideas for the painting, cnt_id=10134198673225717&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673225717&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&baseIndex=35&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). Tacked-on changes bring the artist’s process to life.8 Here the grid might have assisted him in transferring initial thoughts to subsequent sketches.
For draftsmen like Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, drawing was an end in itself. Known for his splendid académies (nude studies from life) like the example here, Standing Female Nude Resting Her Arms on a Branch  (n.d.), he epitomized the classical approach. Using black chalk on blue paper with occasional white chalk highlights, the artist elevated such studies to a new level.
Early on in his love affair with one of his students, Prud’hon captured the sweetness and youth of the object of his affections in Portrait of Constance Mayer (ca. 1804). Although time has turned his blue paper brown, it has not altered the magical effect of black and white chalk on toned paper, a technique unparalleled for depicting three-dimensional form in space.
In a roomful of great works on paper, another portrait catches the attention by virtue of its solidity and attention to detail. In Portrait of Firmin Didot (1823), Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouecy-Trioson (called Girodet), wielding black and white chalk, and a stump to smooth and darken, conjured up a moving representation of his close friend, an accomplished typographer.9
The next generation of French artists followed the lead of Eugène Delacroix who broke from the constraints of the academy in favor of a more dynamic approach to painting. In his Study for Liberty Leading the People (ca. 1830), the viewer can sense the artist’s presence as he grappled to come up with just the right pose for the protagonist of his great painting, cnt_id=10134198673237674&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673237674&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&baseIndex=2&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>July 28: Liberty Leading the People (1830).
In contrast to Delacroix’s sketch, which reveals his preliminary thoughts on paper, Ingres’s Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (1832) represents the end of an agonizing process. Legend has it that Ingres, having sketched Bertin in other poses for an oil cnt_id=10134198673226310&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673226310&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>painting (completed the same year as the drawing), caught his subject during a casual moment with friends and knew immediately he had found the solution.
The painting captures the toughness of the sitter who, at the time, was a force to be reckoned with in the newspaper business.10 In the drawing, perhaps done to accompany the portrait of Bertin’s wife (also in the exhibit), Ingres softened his friend’s expression but used the same commanding pose as in the painting.
By 1834 Ingres was back in Italy, though he would continue to move between Rome and Paris as work dictated, and to react strongly in the face of occasional lackluster responses to his paintings. After one particular disappointment, he vowed to restrict his output to requests from friends.11
In Odalisque and Slave (1839), a drawing at The Morgan related to one such commission, the viewer encountered the draftsman at the height of his powers. Fully realized, perhaps for use by a printmaker,12 the finely wrought piece dazzled first with its composition.
In an interior packed with decorative elements, Ingres’s placement of the three figures and his use of one-point perspective draws the eye to the background, establishing convincing depth in a compact work.
Like a classical sculpture, the undulating form and marmoreal flesh of the odalisque’s torso attracts immediate attention. Her hair, cascading over her left arm, intercepts the feathery fan and echoes the shape of the satin cloth, the triangular end of which points to the musician strumming a tambour, which in turn leads to the man in the background. His flowing robe completes the circuit where it is overlapped by a portion of the satin cloth on the far side of the bare-breasted woman. The picture abounds with such relationships and it can be great sport to discover them.
Ingres rendered every detail with exquisite care and took his usual license with female anatomy. Unmarred by any suggestion of creases, muscles or bones, the skin of the odalisque is flawless–a perfect object for the omnipresent male gaze.
These epitomes of draftsmanship almost took to their graves the skills required to develop their artistic talent. With the rise of Impressionism and subsequent modern modes of representation culminating in abstraction, followed by exaggerated rumors of the death of painting, academic training all but disappeared.
A few devoted practitioners of figurative and other realistic art kept alive those traditions and today, with a growing number of ateliers and schools offering opportunities to study the way the old masters did, classical training has become a burgeoning industry. Perhaps not too far in the future, The Morgan will host an exhibit showcasing new master drawings of the 21st century and, this time, not have any trouble finding women artists to include.
1 Morgan label text for Portrait of a Young Boy.
2 Philip Conisbee in Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, 1999, 25.
3 Ibid, 26.
4 Ibid, 546.
5 Louvre, Prints and Drawings: 19th Century, The Forestier Family
6 Conisbee, 548.
7 Morgan label for The Artist’s Left Hand.
8 Morgan label for The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines.
9 Morgan label for Portrait of Firmin Didot.
10 Conisbee, 300-303.
11 Morgan label for Odalisque and Slave.
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