Magazine article The Spectator

Drawn to Perfection

Magazine article The Spectator

Drawn to Perfection

Article excerpt

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres has a forbidding reputation. He once famously said that drawing was `the probity of art' which makes him sound like the bank manager of painting. But he was a much stranger man than that remark suggests -- more weird, and also, in a fruitful way, more frivolous. Drawing was indeed, if not the probity of his art, at least the backbone and heart of it (let's hope he wasn't right about art in general, as only a few painters under 50 these days can draw for a toffee, thanks to the collapse of the discipline of life-drawing).

But, if Ingres was maniacally precise about line and form, he was equally obsessive about such things as frills, ribbons, tassels, lace and the dimples in the fatly rounded arms of ladies (as, of course, bank managers may well be too). It is this combination of iron stylistic discipline and fierce interest in the sensual surfaces of things, particularly female things, that makes his art so wonderful, and so odd, as is shown by the splendid and unmissable exhibition, Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch.

One can see the way Ingres went to work right at the beginning of the exhibition, in the huge portrait of Napoleon in his imperial robes which faces the entrance. This is a startling image, and, when Ingres first exhibited it in 1806 at the age of 26, a most unpopular one - which shows that even artistic reactionaries who believe that drawing is the probity of art can annoy the critics. There have been numerous suggestions about the sources for this painting, including God the Father in Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, and Jupiter.

But the most convincing is that Napoleon had been presented in the guise of an early Byzantine emperor - a man transformed into an icon, semi-divine, holding his sceptre like a thunderbolt. Simultaneously, however, Ingres pays the most mesmerisingly close attention to the minutiae of the scene: the difference in texture between the ermine, the red velvet and the white silk of Napoleon's robes, the pattern of the magnificently naff carpet on which his throne is placed. The result is at once hyper-real and surreal.

As a portraitist, Ingres carried on working this trick, though as time went on, he got even better at it. He would note the tiniest details of contemporary costume and furnishings - so that his paintings are mines of evidence for historians of dress and interior decoration - but simultaneously fit them into an overall scheme of utter formal perfection, just right to a hair, or the turn of a cravat. Similarly, he would observe his sitters with meticulous thoroughness, and metamorphose them into classical gods with limbs arranged so as to lock together into a flawless sculptural pattern.

Thus Louis-Franqois Bertin, painted a quarter of a century after Napoleon, turns in the posture of an indignant, elderly deity, Pluto, say, or Jove. This is perhaps Ingres's most celebrated portrait, because Bertin so perfectly looks the part of the triumphant bourgeois, although in reality he was a much more swashbuckling figure: a campaigning newspaperman, proprietor of the Journal des debats, who was exiled, bankrupted and put on trial for his opposition to various governments. He is a character from Balzac incarnate, just as the earlier Franqois-Marius Granet is a figure from Stendhal; and indeed there was an overlap of milieu. One learns from the excellent catalogue that James de Rothschild, husband of another sitter, was the original of characters in both.

But remarkable as Ingres's male portraits could be (the National Gallery's very camp one of the Roman police chief, Baron de Norvins, is another masterpiece), one senses that he was more emotionally involved with his female subjects. …

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