The Faces of an Epoch

  • You can't look at great portraits today without a certain nostalgia. The painted portrait is a form that, like blank-verse drama in the theater or the caryatid in architecture, would seem to be on its last legs. Indeed, with few exceptions, it has no legs and seems unlikely to grow new ones. Photography took them away. But older portraits have hardly lost their magic and their grip on the imagination. This is why "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch," which is on view (through April 25) at the National Gallery in London, and will be seen later this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is such an invigorating show.

    And the subtitle fits. Almost from the time they left the easel, the portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) were seen as being more than personal likenesses. They had a defining character. Ingres's period has coalesced around his art. In the first half of his life, when he was in Italy, the Mecca of the aspiring French painter, his pencil drawings caught the upper crust of foreigners there--the milords Anglais and their families on the Grand Tour, the French officials who ran Napoleon's kingdom in Italy, his fellow expatriate artists--with stylish brio and steely exactness. It is fascinating to see him shifting through different levels of notation--for example, between the subtle, continuous modeling of the face of Mrs. Charles Badham (1816) and the brisker, more linear treatment of her shawl and clothes, and the subtle ghost traces of Roman architecture behind her. Nobody understood this medium better than Ingres, and the show contains some of the most exquisite pencil drawings ever made.

    Back in France after 1824, Ingres created a gallery of the rich and the powerful (bankers, royalty, a newspaper owner, beautiful femmes du monde) that seems to define the high society of its day as fully as Felix Nadar's photographs recorded the artistic elites of the 1850s and '60s. Ingres loved doing portraits--and hated it. It was both hackwork and the vehicle of some of his highest instincts as an artist. It drove him crazy: "I don't know how to draw anymore," this greatest of 19th century draftsmen moaned to a friend. "I don't know anything anymore. A portrait of a woman! Nothing in the world is more difficult; it's not doable. I'm starting it over. It's enough to make a man cry." And he undoubtedly meant it.

    "Pupil of David, history-painter." So he identified himself: heir to the Great Cham of French neoclassicism, Jacques-Louis David, and practitioner of the most exalted kind of art, the art that interpreted myth and history to an educated audience. (He never painted a still life and rarely did landscapes except as background to human figures.) But classicism means different things to different artists, and we need an idea of what it meant to him. It had very little to do with the rendition of abstractly idealized form, derived from Greco-Roman statuary. Other and lesser artists who had been through David's teaching studio believed it did, and had fine theories to support their belief. But Ingres had a horror of theory, and like his 17th century predecessor Nicolas Poussin, he was much more interested in flesh than in marble.

    The idea of an "unemotional" Ingres derives from a shallow reading of his paintings' surfaces--that smooth, continuous modeling of fleshy form, without emphatic brushstrokes or vigorous contrasts of tone, so different from the work of his archrival, Eugene Delacroix. But intensity is not a matter of thick or thin paint, high or low contrast. The long battle between the Romantics, led by Delacroix, and the Classicists, whose exemplar was Ingres, entailed some caricature of both its generals. Delacroix was not all fire, nor Ingres all ice. Ingres was an extremely passionate painter. His temperament was riddled with anxiety; sometimes, beset with difficult pictorial problems, he would break out in boils and ulcers. He loved music and played the violin all his life--le violon d'Ingres became a French term for the creative hobby of a gifted person; it gave him solace from the strain of painting. "I need it as much as Saul needed to have it, for his healing," he pointedly said, referring to the mad King of the Jews to whom David played the harp.

    Ingres was brusque, dogmatic, and could brook no argument, especially not from his students at the French Academy in Rome. With Ingres, you either agreed or got out. Compared with him, Delacroix was a model of suavity and balance. Ingres's creative life was a testament to sublimation. His classicism sprang from intense feeling for nature, distilled through innumerable preliminary drawings. His decades in Italy showed him a living classicism, not the dead one of the academic plaster cast. He copied incessantly from the masters, as later painters--Degas, for instance--would copy him. Copying and invention were parts of the same process: the search for exactness and visual truth--"nature without exaggeration, without forced brilliance," as he said of Titian. The miracle of Ingres's talent was that his preparatory labors clarified the impulse without using it up. "Make lines, young man, many lines, from memory or from nature. It's in this way that you will become a good artist," he told Degas.

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