The Faces of an Epoch

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    Making portraits was, for Ingres, a trying battleground between reality and representation. He could fill his history paintings with ideal types of human form and expression; he could give his nudes an extra vertebra or two; but a portraitist had no such liberty. In his portrait of the expatriate Roman society figure Marie-Genevieve-Marguerite de Senonnes (1814), you see what a singular balance he could strike between sensuality and detachment--a balance worthy of his own beau ideal, Raphael. She leans forward a little. Her eyes sparkle. She is all attention. She is a sexy-looking lady, a full-breasted bird in a nest of extravagant velvets and silks, her plump fingers encrusted with rings; yet the whole image is put together with perfect formal concision.

    Ingres never made his sitters conform to any type. He was too fascinated by the specific to do that. But some of his portraits have become stand-ins for classes of people, especially for the triumphant upper middle class of 19th century France. One example is his unforgettable image of Louis-Francois Bertin (1832), the anti-Jacobin journalist who had survived exile and the disapproval of Napoleon to become, during the reign of Louis-Philippe, a press lord--the owner of an influential newspaper, the Journal des debats. His belly strains against the confines of a wrinkled waistcoat; he leans slightly forward, fixing you with a sharply assessing stare; his hands are planted immovably on his knees. It is a pose of total self-confidence. He looks so massive that a cannonball wouldn't budge him, and yet a bit rumpled. Bertin's gray hair is disordered, and none of the smooth continuous curves Ingres favored are to be seen in the silhouette of his body, only in the enclosing chair back. Ingres probably had a Renaissance model in mind, the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione by his adored Raphael, yet the image is as immediate, as wholly of its own time, as a cast-iron bridge.

    Part of the power of Ingres's art lay in his ability to invest figures with a dignity and a power that verged on the sacral. He was one of the last artists to whom the rhetoric of grandeur seemed not only possible but desirable. Of course it had to be for a myth painter doing an Apotheosis of Homer. But Ingres brought it into portraiture, most notoriously with his over-the-top portrait of Napoleon (1806) in his imperial coronation robes, as frontal and opulent as a Byzantine god. So weird was this attempt at deification that even David, Ingres's old teacher, found it "incomprehensible"--and it was so much mocked that the touchy Ingres refused to return to France until other paintings had earned him a better reception there, as they presently did.

    He never lost his taste for the Olympian, however, or for conferring its aura on lesser mortals. One such was Madame Ines Moitessier, the wife of a rich cigar importer, whom he painted not once but twice, in the prime of her beauty. Ingres, though a happily married man, was considerably smitten by her, and rhapsodized about her "terrible and beautiful head...those beautiful eyes, that divine face."

    Such invocations of Juno in the drawing room weren't empty tropes for him. The seated version of Madame Moitessier, finished in 1856 after years of frustrating labor and scores of preliminary studies, is Ingres's Mona Lisa. It's a wonderful blend of intelligibility and mysteriousness. On one hand it is an intensely material painting: the care Ingres took with every last detail of her costume and massive jewelry--the cascading rose-embroidered fabric, the tassels on the bodice--almost defies belief. On the other it harks back in time. Her pose is taken from that of the goddess of Arcadia in an antique mural from Herculaneum that Ingres saw in Naples; whence her bizarre hand, that pampered starfish of flesh. Then there is the profile reflection of her face in the mirror, one of the most discreetly enigmatic "presences" in all painting.

    Looking at Madame Moitessier and her double, one can see why Ingres had such an obsessional hold on Picasso. All the dropsical women of his so-called classic period, the early 1920s, are peasant cousins of this goddess of the salon, and the rhythmic curves of Ingres's drawing would continue to serve Picasso as emblems of peace and sexual satisfaction.

    How would Ingres have liked this show, the first ever dedicated to his portraits? Impossible to guess. He might have objected to seeing what he considered the lesser part of his work isolated from the greater part, the paintings of history and myth. A modern viewer couldn't care less, and shouldn't. For with the passage of time, Ingres's portraits have become history paintings in their own right.

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