Art: The Midas Touch

The great 19th-century painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, himself an ardent and excessive man, endowed his subjects with supreme self-confidence in their wealth, their health and their sexuality. An exhibition of his iconic portraits opens in London this month
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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST impression that one receives from the magnificent exhibition of Ingres portraits at the National Gallery is of unabashed frontality. Clear, candid and vivacious eyes gaze out to meet one's own, without hauteur or false modesty.

The second impression is of an infinitely more benign painter than many of Ingres' pronouncements would lead one to expect. The third impression is of a painter who grew up in a recognisably Romantic ambience, never experiencing the longing and dissatisfaction that afflicted many of his great contemporaries, but who was powerfully aware of a young man's desire and ability to devour the world. The fourth impression is that, for all his professions of faith in Raphael and the disciplines of copying and drawing, and for all the obvious clues planted in his pictures, Ingres is quite simply his own man, from first to last. His great rival Delacroix remarked that Ingres' pictures were "the complete expression of an incomplete intelligence". Delacroix was wrong. The artist whose work we see before us is not only as grand as we thought him to be; he is also very clever.

This exhibition brings to the forefront of our consciousness a factor that cannot easily be overlooked, namely Ingres' power to excite. His sitters seem to be composed of an enviable amalgam of health, money and sexual allure which gradually expand from the vitality of youth into the increased bulk and gravitas of middle age. In some cases this could happen quite suddenly. Bonaparte as First Consul, seized in a moment of comparative political innocence, became, only a short time later, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, with his astral, almost galactic presence. Ingres, with his famous "incomplete intelligence", has captured the essence of absolute power in the size of the portrait, the cynicism of its colours, the monotony of its textures. The repeated ellipses of the back of the throne, the laurel wreath, the ruff, the ermine cloak, exercise a hypnotic effect on the spectator, who notes the emperor's silver foot resting like a reliquary on the purple cushion, the marble spheres that ornament the throne echoing his glabrous face, and, inserted into the roundels of the carpet, ostensibly echoing the signs of the zodiac, the outline of Raphael's Madonna della Sedia, the painter's own personal protection against the evil eye.

This same talisman can be seen in Monsieur Riviere (sadly not included in this exhibition) in the form of the engraving held in the subject's elegant hand, witness both to his connoisseurship and his own aspirations to the sublime. As in some ideal union, his virility is balanced stroke for stroke by the overwhelming femininity of his awe-inspiring wife in her portrait, Madame Philibert Riviere, leaving one in no doubt that Ingres perceived the nature of their mutual attraction and celebrated it according to the canons of painterly decorum. Voluptuousness is contained within an inexorable outline which is in itself a tribute to the discipline of drawing. Influences are absorbed and dismissed; although Ingres owes much to his master David, and to his contemporaries Girodet and Gerard, he is alone in his hard-edged certainties. Their daughter, Mademoiselle Riviere, who was to die of consumption shortly after her portrait was painted, was probably more haggard and much bonier than her almost spherical head would suggest. Ingres has made her perfect, as he has made all his sitters perfect, and has outlined her head, which possesses the ineffable knowing dreaminess of Mona Lisa, against a limpid landscape. No more tender allusion to virginity could be indicated: even the ambiguous content of the prototype has been resolved into a picture of naivety, a quality much prized by the painter, whose own gaze was subtle, almost conspiratorial, certainly, in his portraits of women, cunning, conniving, worshipful.

This is not to say that his sitters were perfect to begin with, or that Ingres had merely to copy them in order to capture their perfection. Although they appear to be without malformations or irregularities and with the clear eyes of abundant health, this was surely not the case. Ingres, in his tribute to the ideal, and to his own idealising tendencies, transforms them into icons, showing them as they would wish themselves to be seen. Nor was their apparent grace captured without difficulty. The National Gallery portrait of Madame Moitessier Seated took Ingres 12 years to complete, from 1844 to 1856, during which time he completed another portrait of the same lady which usually hangs in Washington (see cover). The result has the finality of a funerary monument: again Leonardo's smile coming from beyond the grave. And although the pose of Monsieur Bertin seems inevitable, it took Ingres months of frustration, and tearful outbursts, to "see" it, and then not to everyone's satisfaction. Contemporaries found it shocking, even vulgar, and Mademoiselle Bertin was moved to protest, "My father was a grand seigneur and Ingres has made him look like a farmer." The uncompromising severity of Monsieur Bertin's professional persona (he was in fact a newspaper proprietor) has more than a little to do with Ingres' own disposition, which was rigorous, humourless, and at the same time ardent and excessive. He retained throughout his life a freshness of feeling to which not everyone has access.

And he was clearly susceptible. Severity gives way to feeling in the portraits of his mature middle period, the major portraits of Madame Moitessier (twice), of Madame de Broglie, of Madame de Rothschild, of Monsieur and Madame Leblanc, portraits which Baudelaire said made him feel ill, as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the atmosphere. These hyper-real images, pushed up against the front plane of the picture, in a deliberately confined space, have an air of control that borders on triumphalism. It was probably the sight of a particular kind of female self-assertion that gave Baudelaire the vapours. Yet it was Baudelaire who best defined Ingres' style. "I should say that his ideal is compounded of good health and a calm verging on indifference, something analagous to the ideal of antiquity, on which he superimposes the curiosities and details of modern life." The only thing wrong with this verdict is the charge of indifference. Ingres was a grotesquely passionate man.

He was also a dangerous modernist, for all his assertions that there was nothing after Phidias and Raphael. "Our task is not to invent but to continue," he said. He was, above all, middle-class, which partly accounts for his palpable condescension: he celebrates wealth and comfort and the appetite for both. And he confers on these qualities a massive dignity which is not without a certain naif admiration. One can see why Delacroix could feel superior. It is, again, naivety which nourishes Ingres' particular probity of vision. This is evident above all in the drawings, which, released from the taut skin on the paint, seem effortless, almost airy, acknowledging Granet in the landscape backgrounds. Many were done in Rome, of foreign tourists, in a single sitting. Sir John Hay and his sister Mary, once again enabled to make the Grand Tour, are relaxed, on holiday. Ingres sees them as equals, as he sees the musicians Paganini, Liszt, Gounod; they are agreeable young people, with none of the attitudinising that his fellow painters thought an essential accompaniment to distinguished or celebrated subjects. Here, as well as naivety, Ingres expresses confidence; he becomes a man of the world, although in other respects he is narrowly, quintessentially French, disdaining an English patron's attempts to lure him away. He proved, throughout his long life, that he was right to take himself so seriously.

A famous teacher - his pupils numbered over a hundred - he left his mark on subsequent generations of painters. This legacy extends from Mant's portrait of Berthe Morisot, which owes so much to Ingres' Madame Devaucay, through Degas and even Renoir at one period, to Picasso and the odalisques of Matisse. He is arguably the last representative of a great figural tradition, a tradition allied to reverence for antiquity and for classical subject matter. He complained that portraits took him away from his real work, the depiction of history, allegory, mythology, religion. Few, however, would echo this complaint. After his death everything changed, notably content. History, mythology and the rest were laid aside. It is to the specificity of certain situations, whether classical or contemporary, that Ingres brings his scrutiny, his insight, his devoted care. "Not too much ambition," he warned his students. He meant vainglory, panache, effects that would not stand the test of time. For these he substituted respect. The Riviere family, Madame de Tournon, Madame d'Haussonville present themselves to us as they would no doubt wish to be remembered, in life as well as in art. It is only when the two are combined, as they are in the portraits of Ingres, that such rare mastery is attained.

`Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch' opens at the Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London WC2, on 27 January and runs until 25 April