Ingre's Portraits on the Cusp of the Photographic Age

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Yet as astute a contemporary of Ingres' as Baudelaire differed radically in his appraisal of the painter's strengths. "It is in fact in this genre that [Ingres] has found his greatest, most legitimate success," Baudelaire wrote about the reluctant portraitist's gem-like works. "The most beautiful women, rich in nature, of calm and flourishing health?there is his triumph and joy."

    Triumph and joy, indeed, is what one finds at the Met's stunning exhibition of Ingres portraits. Made up of 40 paintings and 92 drawings encompassing every period of Ingres' prodigious, albeit not always stable career, "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch" biographically spans the artist's six working decades, from childhood sketches done in the red chalk of his native Montauban to the arresting vision of the flirtatious Vicomtesse d'Haussonville he painted as an older man. Billed as the most comprehensive exhibition of Ingres' portraits ever presented outside of France (and also the most extensive exhibition of Ingres paintings since his 1867 memorial exhibition in Paris), "Image of an Epoch" constitutes a who's who of the 19th-century French elite?an aristocracy of birth, wealth, power and, in Ingres' virtuosically esthetizing hands, beauty?sure to dazzle even the most jaded eye.

    Ingres, after a modest upbringing in a backwater of France, kept his eye trained on the prize symbolized by respectable success. Hardly a rebel artist, Ingres hewed to traditional values in painting, politics and his personal life, striking out only through excessive ambition and an inability to control his exquisite sense of observation and a continually riposting painting hand. Characterizing himself once as suffering from "an excessive sensibility and an insatiable desire for glory," Ingres pegged in this phrase much of the trouble that was to plague him throughout his life; trouble that was to remain constant until his sudden Parisian apotheosis caught up to an otherwise middling fortune at the ripe age of 44.

    Ingres' most conspicuous and oft-remembered spot of trouble came in the form of a critical savaging at the Paris Salon of 1806. Having recently won the coveted Prix de Rome, Ingres planned a sending off to ringing applause after submitting a youthful, transparently conceited, shamelessly social-climbing portrait of Napoleon as emperor of France. Napoleon I On His Imperial Throne described the round-faced emperor like a seated Zeus swathed in velvet and gold brocade, hieratically powerful in the manner of the Roman gods of antiquity. Presumptively painted, as it were, on spec?no commission commanded the imperial portrait, though Ingres dreamed the Emperor's people would favor it, no doubt?Napoleon's Carolingian likeness at the Salon drew fire from all quarters. Critics uniformly disparaged it. When a court official finally came calling, he described the portrait as "a 14th-century picture," adding insult to injury by tagging it "Gothic and barbarous."

    But if the Salon of 1806 was for Ingres "the theater of [my] disgrace," the painter's humiliations were not to end there. His Prix de Rome stint over, Ingres, who by now was married, was forced to live for years chiefly on money obtained from painting the portraits he so despised. Starting with local notables and French administrators, Ingres was eventually forced by Napoleon's defeat to portray a new occupying force?hordes of woolly British tourists from a Merchant and Ivory nightmare, doing the continent in their own inimitable anti-style. Kept away from the peninsula for 20 years by a wartime blockade, the newly traveled British professional and merchant classes beat a path to Ingres' Roman door. "Is this where the man who draws the little portraits lives?" they asked. "No," the Frenchman answered haughtily, "the man who lives here is a painter!"

    But through all his misfortunes and eventual fortunes, Ingres churned out remarkable drawings done for sitters (he estimated some 300 in Rome alone) and oil portraits that remain unmatched in their highly controlled power. The reclining portrait of Madame de Senonnes, a likeness of a luscious, racy French divorcee in Rome, is a study in silken and velvety fabrics, opulent jewelry and swelling décolletage; Ingres' calling card tucked into Madame's gilt mirror suggests further shared complicity of a gossipy kind. Ingres' version of the elderly Comtesse de Tournon, an unhandsome though flattering portrait, shows the seated dowager bearing an unidealized hook nose, while sheltering wrinkles of the head and neck (as all cosmetic surgery victims know, the one telling indicator of age) by means of a wig and a lace ruff. The portrait of the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, one of Ingres' most celebrated and recognizable works, presents a coy, confident elegance enhanced by yet another manipulative twist. A vision of a particularly elegant, charming gamine, the painting is made particularly memorable by the artist's impossible extension of the Vicomtesse's crossed right arm and by a signature mirror reflection the artist repeatedly used to heighten his portraits' uncanny realistic effect.

    There are those who find in Ingres' portraits a sort of proto-photography, a painterly method devoted primarily to getting down a documentary accuracy akin to that claimed for the first photographic portraits. But nothing could be further from the truth. The portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin, the painting which was to bring Ingres greatest acclaim (no less for depicting the ideal representative of the ascendant bourgeoisie, than for its stark, almost hyperrealistic treatment) contains scads of deceptions and trickeries that have nothing to do with detached objectivity. Compared to Ingres' preliminary pencil study?quick, sure and precise in registering the sitter's appearance?the painting endows Bertin, the newspaper magnate, with a massive, concentrated force of personality. Ingres, the last great professional in a field soon to be monopolized by the camera, was portraiture's most able practitioner for centuries. However reluctantly done, we are sure to continue to remember him for his uncrowned gentlemen and ladies, not for his emperors.

    "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch," through Jan. 2, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave. (82nd St.), 879-5500.