Perfect Ingres Portraits, Down to the Buttonholes

There are times when it is the curious fate of an artist to achieve his greatest work as a consequence of being denied his fondest aspirations. That was the paradoxical destiny of the 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), whose work is currently the subject of a sensationally beautiful exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

What Ingres aspired to was a career akin to those of Raphael and Poussin as a painter of religious, allegorical and history pictures on a heroic scale. What fortune decreed, however, was a career largely devoted to the painting and drawing of portraits of his contemporaries. Thus, what the artist often decried as an ignominious fate, posterity has come to regard as his greatest triumph. All of which is a potent reminder that there are times when even the greatest artists are obliged to make their obeisances to the spirit of the age in which they live, whether they like it or not.

The current exhibition in Washington is called Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch , which, given the artist’s reverence for Raphael and Greek antiquity, is likely to have caused Ingres himself to shudder a bit but is reasonable enough as exhibition titles go nowadays. The show itself consists of nearly 40 paintings and some 60 drawings, all of them abounding in such a perfection of form, such a plenitude of scrupulously realized detail, such incisive accounts of human character and such alluring renderings of the materials with which the artist’s subjects embellished their material existence that the exhibition actually feels even larger than it is as one makes one’s way through its almost overabundant attractions.

Having seen the show twice now–and on both occasions without crowds or time constraints–I caution visitors to this exhibition not to expect to take it all in on a single visit. There is always more to be seen in these paintings and drawings than can be fully apprehended in a single encounter.

It was only on my second visit, for example, that I found myself paying close attention to, of all things, the rendering of the buttonholes to be observed in the clothing of some of Ingres’ male subjects. In the painting of Joseph-Antoine Moltedo (circa 1810), the buttonholes of the leather overcoat in which this senior civil servant wrapped his considerable girth while sitting for his portrait are miniature miracles of almost microscopic brushwork. If one didn’t know better, one might think that Ingres had served an apprenticeship in needlework before taking up the brush. But then, of course, Ingres’ brush is often employed with a needle-like precision. In the rendering of the eyebrows, for an instance, in that same Moltedo portrait, every hair is given its due but never more than its due.

At times, to be sure, this attention to minute detail is almost comically excessive, as it is in the over-the-top portrait of Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806). Except for the subject’s doll-like head, which rests on its decorative collar like an exotic porcelain on a lace doily, there is no suggestion of the physical presence of an actual person in the picture. The arms are as much mere props as the scepter and the sword, and the theatrical arrangement of the overelaborative costume is made to serve in lieu of anything remotely related to human anatomy. It is the kind of absurd, overreaching picture that could only have been painted by an artist of genius desperate to win attention in high places. Alas, in that respect it was also a failure, for it elicited far more ridicule than praise.

With the portrait of Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne , however, we are only at the beginning of this exhibition, with the bulk of artist’s masterpieces still to come. Yet the anatomical distortions to be observed in this bizarre painting alert us to something that, with considerably more pictorial success, remains a curious feature of some of Ingres’ greatest portraits. Baudelaire spoke of this in 1855 when he observed that in certain of Ingres’ paintings, though not in this case the portraits, “we shall find a navel which has strayed in the direction of the ribs, or a breast which points too much toward the armpit; and in one place … we are utterly baffled by an egregious leg, thin as a lath, with neither muscles nor contours, and without even a fold at the knee joint.”

Baudelaire called such distortions “conjuring tricks,” and there are plenty of them to be found in some of Ingres’ most glorious portraits. In the painting of Madamede Senonnes (1814), the sitter’s ample bosom has been lifted almost to the shoulders while her right arm is roughly twice the length of the left; and in a marvelous later portrait, Madame Paul-Sigisbert Moitessier (1856), the left arm is almost twice the thickness of the right, and the torso is so radically abridged that you have to wonder where the poor lady’s legs manage to attach themselves to the rest of her anatomy.

We are thus reminded amid the often showy display of verisimilitude–those buttonholes in the men’s garments, the flowered silks and sparking jewelry on the women, etc.–that Ingres’ pictorial style is not to be confused with the ideal of classical realism that is often attributed to it. However much he admired Raphael and the Greeks, Ingres was after all–despite himself–a precursor of the moderns. Picasso’s parodies of Ingres in his Neo-Classical period are in some respects a better guide to the latter’s genius than the 19th-century Academicians who, in attempting to imitate his style, produced only caricatures of a fictional classicism. The more we study Ingres, the more we understand why he meant so much not only to Picasso but to Arshile Gorky, who never tired of exalting Ingres as the greatest of modernist painters, and to Willem de Kooning, too. (See, for example, the three de Kooning drawings in the current New York Collects exhibition at the Morgan Library.)

There will be more to say about the Ingres exhibition when it comes to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the fall. Meanwhile, the show remains on view at the National Gallery in Washington through Aug. 22.