Portraitist and complainer

Ingres' skills at depicting people belied his stuffy, pedantic attitude about passionate Romanticism

June 06, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

I may as well admit at the outset that there are some painters whom I can admire but not quite love and that Frenchman Jean-August-Dominique Ingres is one of them.

Ingres (1780-1867) was certainly a very great artist and his portraits are currently the subject of an impressive retrospective at Washington's National Gallery of Art. He was also something of a paradox.

He had a marvelous gift for portraiture but, like the American expatriate John Singer Sargent, whose society portraits are on display in the hall adjacent to Ingres' at the National Gallery, he was forever complaining that portraits kept him from more important work.

He was one of art history's great draftsmen, and throughout his life he maintained that line was superior to color in works of art. But his own paintings show that he was also a superb and subtle colorist whose achievements transcended any simple formula.

At the height of his influence, as head of the official French government-sponsored School of Fine Arts in Paris, Ingres was a pedantic exponent of the cool Neoclassical style of David and dogmatically opposed the passionate Romanticism of the younger generation represented by Delacroix and Gericault. Yet Ingres' own work had a powerful Romantic streak that belied his stuffy theorizing.

The National Gallery's "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch," which runs through Aug. 22, neatly avoids the more problematic aspects of Ingres' artistry by focusing exclusively on his portrait drawings and paintings. Ingres was incredibly clever with pencil and paper and quite prolific. The 60 drawings and 40 paintings in this show represent only a fraction of his output in the portrait genre.

They are enough, however, to make the modern viewer conscious of a certain repetitiousness and predictability, especially in Ingres' treatment of women, who all look as though they share the same slightly degenerated gene pool.

Ingres aimed at a melding of visual truth and ideal form, a predilection that led him naturally to prefer models he could easily render according to Neoclassical standards of beauty.

Take, for example, Ingres' painting of Madame Paul-Sigisbert Moitessier, the daughter of a colleague whom Ingres painted both seated and standing in the 1850s, and who was considered a great beauty in her day.

Ingres renders the dresses, jewelry and household accessories of that bygone era with the loving precision of a Merchant-Ivory film. Technically the work is a tour de force, but Madame Moitessier herself is hardly what one would expect the star of such a movie to look like.

The lady's chubby face, round shoulders, flaccid arms and fat fingers make her seem lamentably dumpy, even bovine. And her expression, meant to convey a mood of classical serenity, strikes us today as rather stupid, certainly not that of a mistress of the social whirl.

Madame Moitessier is a generic type in Ingres' portraits of women -- a bit on the pudgy side, not too bright and stylized to a fare-thee-well. Ingres certainly could have painted her differently, as his languorous odalisques and squirming Turkish harem girls, not included in this show, amply demonstrate. (The catalog also cites a chalk study of Madame Moitessier completed several years earlier than the paintings that is much more revealing of character and more in tune with our own era's ideas of glamour. Alas, it is not in the show either.)

Ingres generally did better with men. Perhaps because he did not feel the need to idealize men according to the same formula he applied to women, or because the ways in which he did idealize them seem less artificial to us, Ingres' portraits of men require less of a leap of faith to appreciate.

His portrait of the Paris newspaper publisher Louis-Francois Bertin, executed in 1832, for example, is a powerful characterization of an obviously commanding personality. Bertin, shown hunched in a chair with hands on knees, stares stonily out at the viewer with an ironic expression that is both skeptical and benign.

The portrait conveys the self-confident authority one would expect of a Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, and in this way Bertin comes across as a man thoroughly of our modern world -- tough-minded, without aristocratic pretension but secure in his accomplishments as businessman and journalist.

However, two paintings of Napoleon, included in this show, are exceptions to the male portrait rule. Neither conveys the conviction of David's portrait of the famous general, which can be seen in another gallery on the same floor.

Ingres was in many ways ahead of his time, in his impulses if not in his ideas about art. As the critic John Canaday remarked, he was a great painter almost in spite of himself -- the official leader of classicism who was a closet Romantic, the dutiful formalist whose sinuous lines and sensuous color combinations belied the staid dogma he felt obliged to teach his students.

Today, it is the intimate, emotional Ingres we seek behind the veneer of artistic convention and respectability. And that is surely to be found in his portraits, in which we sense today the tension between the artist's own conflicting impulses and find aspects that are both troubling and liberating.

We can no longer see with the eyes of a viewer of the 1850s. Unlike Goya, in whom each succeeding generation readily finds its own reflection, Ingres was a man of his time. Appreciating him requires accepting the conventions to which he felt bound.

After we do, however, it becomes plain that this complex and in some ways enigmatic painter was not only a great stylist, but also an artist who managed to give rare expression to deeply felt personal experience and insight into the human condition.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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