Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Contemplating Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres on his birthday

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,
Josephine-Eleonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Bearn, Princesse de Broglie, 
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." 
                                                                         - Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)

There are some artists whose works bring to my mind the famous words exchanged between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett at the time of his surprising and "uncivil" declaration. I find myself baffled as I contemplate these masterpieces and find that "I like them against my will, against my reason, and even against my character." Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is one such artist. Strange that even though my preferences run towards Romanticism rather than  Classicism, I am transfixed by Ingres' portraits. It could be the calm, cold gaze of Monsieur Ingres' subjects, engaging the viewer in such a manner that one  just can't look away, or the perfection of his line and forms plus the impeccable rendering of the different surfaces throughout his superbly finished canvases.  Although Ingres idealizes and distorts his figures, one is left with the impression that they are standing before a very real presence.  

Jacques-Louis Leblanc, 1823
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc, 1823
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ingres's extraordinary treatment of the different fabrics and surfaces is likened to the photorealism of our century. Observing the contrast between the palpable texture of the varied surfaces and the softness of the female sitters' smooth, creamy flesh, one starts to understand what Degas might have been feeling when as  a blind, old man, he went to visit  Ingres' exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris and ran his hands over the pictures. I can empathize with Degas, since I too find myself drawn to these unique portraits whenever I visit the Metropolitan Museum or the Frick Collection in New York. 

The Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, 1845
(The Frick Collection)
As great as his portraits may be, my first introduction to Ingres was probably through his depictions of the Odalisques and Turkish Baths - ironically these images are often used as visuals in Turkish publications of books, novels or magazines. I already wrote a post about Ingres' Odalisque in Grissailles that is at the Met, which is a perfect study of the artist's line of beauty.  But, as superb as his modeling and intriguing as his subjects may be, I still have a hard time reconciling myself to the fact that as a feminist and a woman of Turkish decent, I am in awe of a man who visualized the Orientalist, Western male fantasy of the nude female presented for his consumption. To add insult to injury, unlike his sworn enemy and rival Eugene Delacroix, Ingres had never been to the Orient and these various female beauties lounging about in a state of undress decorated with props from his studio were the figments of his imagination. Of course, he would have no way of witnessing such scenes as he had depicted in any case. But it turns out, Ingres did have access to one of the rare eyewitness accounts concerning life within the inner sanctum of the Oriental household, the Harem - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters. Lady Montagu was one of the only foreigners who was able to breach the walls of the Harem to observe the very private world of the females of the Ottoman Empire.  She gave a very accurate and favorable account of her experiences and shed light on one of the great mysteries of the Middle East, the West was  so fascinated with.  Unfortunately, Ingres' interpretations of Lady Montagu's letters relating her amazement at the grace, hospitality, civility as well as beauty of the people she encountered became the visual manifestation of exotic fantasies western society had of rooms and baths full of sexually available women lying in wait to be called upon for one man's pleasure.  

Odalisque and Slave, 1839
(Fogg Art Mueum)

If one was to judge this artist's oeuvre just by looking at these images without having the information about the details of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' creative process, these images could be considered almost erotica.  From the beginning, Ingres historical paintings were filled with borrowings from antiquity, Raphael, and John Flaxman's illustrations. Agnes Mongan's article "Ingres and the Antique" is quite enlightening in presenting some of the artist's most famous history paintings from Thetis beseeching Jupiter to honour Achilles to Apotheosis of Homer, with illustrations of the original sources for each part of these works. Mongan calls Ingres compositions magpie-like composites. By his own admition, Ingres said "I am a conserver of good doctrines and not an innovator." No matter what his original influences, with the amount of meticulous work invested in these works and the final level of perfection that he achieved, Ingres' enigmatic paintings became original masterpieces that provided inspiration to many of the modern masters and still continue to amaze and enchant artists and viewers alike to this day.

As I was contemplating writing a post about the beautiful portraits by Ingres that I have encountered in New York museums, I read a very thought provoking post in one of my favorite blogs about connoisseurship and the social and cultural dimensions of art. The author Hasan Niyazi brings into focus the various factors involved in art appreciation, analysis and expertise while referring to a book by Professor Dana Arnold, Art History, A Very Short Introduction. Hasan highlights Dr. Arnold's theory on the influence of culture and social norms in the appreciation of art.  Although I agree that our specific cultural and social background does affect our perceptions, there is also a very personal engagement as one stands before a work of art that can skew all our intellectual paradigms.  For me Ingres' oeuvre is one such example that I still have not been able to fully rationalize... but in the presence of such magnetic art, I can't help but ask myself do I really need to?


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Turkish Embassy Letters

"Ingres and the Antique", Agnes Mongan, Journal of the Warburg and the Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 10, (1947), pp 1-13


  1. I love what you say at the end of your post, Sedef, about our own "personal engagement" -- that is SO true! I, too, find myself liking Ingres -- I think that it's the textures, and what appears to me to be a Mannerist flavor that I can't resist. I also get a sense of leisure, almost languor, that captures my attention. Thanks for another great post!

  2. Welcome back Karen,
    Yes. the textures are truly amazing but more than that, I find the expression on their faces so intriguing... I want to know their secrets.

  3. Yes, they look very secretive behind their boredom. Portraits can be so tantalizing! (and thanks!)


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