Ingres 1780-1980

INGRES 1780-1980
Fogg Museum (Harvard University Art Museums), Cambridge, MA, November, 1980.

(Originally published in Art New England, December, 1980.)

This is a superb exhibition of the Fogg Art Museum’s entire, extensive collection of drawings and paintings by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. The exhibit is framed by a miniature pencil self-portrait, which shows the artist as a provincial young man of the eighteenth century, and a painted self-portrait at the age of seventy-nine, showing Ingres dressed in elegant black, wearing the medals he had won in the course of his long career as a much-honored painter and chef-d’ecole.  Also shown are a number of exquisite pencil portraits, drawings, and studies for major works, and some important paintings including Raphael and the Fornarina, Madame Reiset, and Odalisque with a Slave.

The show provides a good portrait of Ingres’s perfectionism, the obsessive quality of his temperament and art.  Picasso said of Cezanne, that it is his anxiety that interests us, and this is also true of Ingres.  He returned again and again to certain subjects – forms, curves, triangles, and configurations – and worked over them ceaselessly, changing and refining, his anxious line always seeking some ideal arrangement of forms.  A favorite subject was the beautiful, dreamy, expressionless women whom he painted either dressed in the marvelous clothes that seem part of their bodies, like an animal’s fur, or naked and languorous and posed in an attitude taken from classical cart. Drawings of Madame d’Haussonville show that Ingres changed slightly the angle of her neck and the flounce of a skirt; hand studies show the tiny alterations he made to perfect every detail of the image.  Certain images such as the bather wearing a turban, seen here in two small watercolors, and the odalisque take on an extraordinarily intense, iconic quality.

The drawings especially are astounding.  Ingres’s line has power, grace, life; it’s brilliant, dramatic, neurotic, even perverse; everything is in the line.  Painting was Ingres an extension of drawing.  He told his students:

“Drawing is everything; it is all of art… Drawing includes everything except color.  It is the expression, the interior form, the plan, the modeling.”

Several studies for Virgil Reading the Aeneid, a subject that Ingres worked out in many variations over fort years, show that the artist worked on a grid in some early drawings.  In these, the voluptuous curves hang upon the straight lines of the grid, each square providing a kind of abstract subplot to the drawing.  In a watercolor version, vestiges of this grid appear as parts of furniture and columns and in the powerful columnlike limbs of a statue in the wall.  The grid, now partly invisible, provides a framework to hold in place the lavish linework of the curves of the bodies and folds of the cloth.

For a twentieth-century audience brought up on abstraction, Ingres’s greatness, his fascination, lies in the abstract qualities of his line, its independence, and its serious, restless, obsessive movement across the page.  The line has a life of its own and its own immortality too.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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