The Large Miniatures of Ingres: 'Portraits by Ingres' at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Large Miniatures of Ingres: 'Portraits by Ingres' at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


Donald Bruce

Like Gainsborough, Ingres became increasingly reluctant to paint portraits, and in the end accepted a sitter's commission only when frankly cornered by an influential patron. Then, with much labour, he did his immaculate best. He could draw a bewitching likeness in an hour or two, but paintings were not the same as that. Never satisfied, he endlessly reworked and retouched them, actually weeping when, in his exacting view, something went wrong. As Winckelmann, the critic who presided over NeoClassicism, advised, Ingres was fiery in inception but cautious in completion. His sitters needed patience. He spent twelve years on his portrait of Mme Moitessier in the London National Gallery. He made six extant studies, including a drawing of her in the nude for

which, naturally, a professional model stood in, although he pasted a drawing of Mme. Moitessier's eyes across the outline of the model's face, since the eyes were the crucial features in his portraits. That is not to say that his portraits were no more than similitudes. As the young and admiring Picasso discerned, 'Ingres drew like Ingres and not like the things he drew'. Ingres's painted figures, such as Angelica in his Ruggiero and Angelica, are often longer, narrower and more serpentine than the precise life-studies he made in preparation for them.

As Ingres wrote in 1813, it was quite impossible for him to paint portraits quickly in order to earn a ready profit. He added, 'Expression cannot be good if it has not been informed by absolute exactitude'. It is not surprising that in the self-portraits he executed for special occasions he looks increasingly irascible and tired. He completed the last of these at the age of seventy-eight, as if to signalise his release from portraiture. Five years later he achieved his supreme life-paintings in Le Bain Turc in the Louvre. His portraits were masterly; but Michelangelo himself begrudged his self-imposed toil in the Sistine Chapel, although he could see what marvels he had accomplished there. Ingres was happier with his portraits drawn in pencil, which liberated his deft and spontaneous sense of line. In the paintings derived from them he laboured to perfect and justify what had come to him instantaneously.

His portrait of his patron, the Duc d'Orleans, heir-apparent to King Louis-Philippe, concludes a series of dandies delineated as if straight out of the pages of Ingres's contemporary, Balzac: raffish provincials from his native Montauban, art-students from his years in Jacques-Louis David's studio; later on, patrons and dignitaries from the First Empire, the Bourbon Restoration and the ascendancy of Napoleon III. Most of them are closely buttoned into a bristling sequence of outer garments; armadillo-plated with pointed lapels (on waistcoats, under-jackets, topcoats and capes) and hugely cravatted.

They kept the cold out more resolutely than the ladies Ingres painted in their slipping corsages: the Vicomtesse de Senonnes, her slim, coiled energy temporarily arrested, her tense shoulders reflected in the looking-glass behind her, with Ingres's visiting card tucked into its frame (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes); Mme Moitessier, wife of a cigar-importer, standing with a chaplet of roses on her flighty head and a black dress, the elegance of which she has contrived to wreck with titivations of lace and gauze, on her heavy body, or (seated before a mirror) portly as a galleon with its parrot-gaudy sails distended in a streaming breeze (National Galleries, Washington and London); Mme Riviere, her bare arm as plump and velvety as the cushion it reposes on (Louvre).

More demure is Mme Baltard, sketched in pencil, her eyes sweetly uplifted under the braided, centre-parted hair fashionable at the time (Private Collection, Paris); and, demure beyond all demureness, delicate as the Sevres china on the glazed chimney-piece she leans against, the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, youngest child of the Duc de Broglie and a descendant of Mme de Stael. …

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