Friday, 20 March 2009

Ingres on art

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – February 2009. 

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born in Montauban in 1775 and died in 1867. He won the “Prix de Rome”, which is a prestigious art prize in France; went to the Villa Medicis, the French Art Academy in Rome as a pupil and later as its director. He remains famous for his portraits and historical paintings.

Ingres considered drawing as superior to painting (“Drawing contains three quarter and a half of what constitutes painting.”). Ingres was excellent at drawing and this certainly explains his views. On the other hand, his paintings seem dull today, after we’ve seen impressionism and fauvism make paintings full of brilliant colours. His motto was “No too bright colours; it is anti-historical. Rather fall in the grey than in the ardent (…)”.

Portrait of Victor Baltard's wife (born Adeline Lequeu) and their daughter Paule

Ingres believed in the superiority of painting from nature (“Art is never at such a high degree of perfection than when it looks like so much like nature that you could think it is nature itself.”), but only through the filter of drawing (“If you are not painting from nature already copied by you but from nature directly, you will always remain a slave and your painting will resent from this slavery.”). Ingres also thought that the work from nature should be combined with the study and inspiration given by old masters (“One must always copy from nature and learn to see it well. This is why it is necessary to study old masters from antiquities and their works, not to imitate them, but once again, to learn to see.”)

Ingres was a proponent of classicism and admired the Greeks and Romans for their art. His preferred painter was Raphael, but he denied just copying him. Ingres professed that there was only one art, “the one which is based on eternal and natural beauty”. For this reason, he condemned novelty and change, considering old masters already found beauty in their work and had just to be followed.

Oedipus et Sphinx, 1808 – Louvre Museum, Paris

To Ingres, mastery meant achieving a high degree of realism and conceiving a painting as a window opening onto the world. Technique was successful when it went unnoticed. (“Art never succeeds more than when it is hidden.”) He was against any brushwork effect, considering it as a distraction for the viewer. His technique was very slow and he only left a handful of paintings.

He despised Delacroix that he called “the apostle of ugliness” and the feeling was mutual, as Delacroix criticized Ingres’ lights and colours: “He believes that light is here to embellish; he does not know that it is first here to animate” and the lack of reflected lights in Ingres’s paintings: “He does not suspect that everything is reflection in nature and that all colours are an exchange of reflections.”

Paintings by Ingres
A Closer Look: A closer look at Louis-François Bertin: An excellent study of one of Ingres’ painting in the Louvre with audio commentary

Une Odalisque (Louvre Museum)

Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx (Louvre Museum)

The Apotheosis of Homer (Louvre Museum)

Books on Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: The Classical Idealist (Taschen Basic Art Series)
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: The Classical Idealist (Taschen Basic Art Series)Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch (Metropolitan Museum of Art (Hardcover))

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