Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Following Ingres' Line of Beauty at the Met

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814
(Musee du Louvre)
When I look at a work of art, it is a very personal experience that far surpasses just analyzing the artists style, composition and subject matter, it is a connection with that era, with that artist.  In studying the great masters, art history classes tend to concentrate on their most famous works in order to convey the artist's most significant achievements but looking at slides or pictures of these grande works on the internet does not appease my longing for a more personal experience. Luckily, I live near New York City, which enables me to realize my penchant for personally engaging with most of the great works of art I study.  This semester, I took a class called  "Revolution to Realism: European Painting 1760-1860"  which for the most part covered French artists, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres being one of the giants of this period.

Ingres, The Bather of Valpincon,1808
(Musee du Louvre)

Of course, most of Ingres' oeuvre is now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris but I was able to encounter some of his works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Some of Ingres most famous works are his Oriental nudes which are incredibly fascinating due to his unique style of combining Classicism with Mannerism.  There is an almost photographic quality in some parts of his works with the amount of detail he portrays with such precision while simultaneously distorting the figures to suit his purpose.  This is especially apparent in his sensual nudes who seem to posses extremely elongated bodies and no muscles, just soft, smooth flesh. The critics who saw these nudes at the Salon noted that he added two or three extra vertebra to these figures and it was actually impossible for them to stand or walk.  The sense of weightlessness that can be observed in the Bather of Valpincon and the impossible position of the Grande Odalisque are all part of the fantasy Ingres creates about an exotic world of his imagination. Although he produced many Oriental themed paintings, Ingres never actually traveled to the Middle East or encounter a real Harem or an Odalisque in his life.  His nudes appealed to the Western male viewer because these women were there for male consumption and even their feet which didn't look like they had touched the ground conveyed the message of being kept for the pleasure of men.  Ingres used the S-shaped Line of Beauty to enhance his compositions to great effect.  

Being a Classicist in the Davidian tradition, Ingres believed contours were the most important element in a painting, that even clouds should have contours.  He used closed forms where following the contour of the figure, the viewer can go all the way around the figure to arrive at the point where they started; this is very obvious in his nudes.  I was able to follow his contours first hand as I stood before the Odalisque in Grisaille, at the Met, "an unfinished repetition of the celebrated Grande Odalisque of 1814" according the museum label. In black and white, the soft contours of the body are enhanced more clearly and Ingres' reputation as a master of realism is reinforced. Also lacking the intricate details and lavish colors, Ingres' Classicism is better identified with the stark reality of his lines and shadows and the perfectly smooth surface of his canvas. The sense of quiet that permeates The Bather of Valpincon, can also be felt in this painting; the lack of noise is one of the qualities that captured my attention first.  This is a great work in learning the flow of the brush of such a master and deciphering how he worked.  

Ingres painted Le Grande Odalisque while he was in Rome and studying the masters, especially Raphael whom he was fascinated with; as a matter of fact, the profile of the figure was likened to something Raphael would paint.  I think finding a Raphael that most closely resembles this figure would be delightful, but that is going to have to be a project for another day. For now, I leave you with Ingres and his voluptuous nudes...

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Workshop, Odalisque in Grisaille, 1824-34
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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