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Curse, Legacy or Both?

Ingres chronicled an era with his luminous portraits of the rising bourgeoisie, but he didn't exactly relish the thought.

May 30, 1999|STANLEY MEISLER | Stanley Meisler is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the classical French master of the 19th century, professed to abhor the painting of portraits. "I cannot stand them anymore," he wrote a friend in 1841. "It is not to paint portraits that I returned to Paris." "Cursed portraits!" he wrote another friend six years later. "They always prevent me from undertaking important things. . . ."

Yet he could not resist the appeal of power, wealth, friendship, beauty and fashion, and he spent much of a long lifetime crafting with painstaking care a series of astounding portraits that chronicle the era of bourgeois ascendancy in France for the six decades between the rise of Emperor Napoleon I and the decline of Emperor Napoleon III.

But the portraits are far more than a historical record. They overwhelm with breathtaking presence and luminosity. They brim with meticulous detail. They never flatter, yet, even when the sitter is plain, reach a mood that somehow seems sublime. The Ingres portraits are among the most beautiful ever created anywhere and at any time.

Americans can now have a rare look at a large number of the best of them. Assembled first at the National Gallery in London, an exhibition of 100 of his portraits--40 oil paintings and 60 graphite pencil drawings--opened last weekend at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is the first retrospective of the artist's portraits ever shown in the United States.

Titled "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch," the show remains in Washington until Aug. 22 and then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from Sept. 27 to Jan. 2, 2000.

The ambitious undertaking stemmed from a modest proposal. Ingres painted two portraits, one seated, one standing, of Madame Ines Moitessier, a buxom woman whom Ingres called "the beautiful and the good." The standing, somewhat austere Madame Moitessier now belongs to Washington's National Gallery; the seated, more appealing Madame Moitessier to London's National Gallery.

Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings at the Washington museum, talked with his counterparts in London several years ago about the possibility of a joint exhibition of the two portraits. The idea of a retrospective of all the finest Ingres portraits, says Conisbee, "just grew from that."

Ingres regarded himself as a painter of grand scenes from history, mythology, the Bible and the Orient who turned out portraits mainly to earn enough money to live comfortably while seeking commissions for his more important work.

Scholars still prize the large paintings, and the public is still titillated by his erotic scenes of nudes in Turkish harems. But the subjects of most Ingres murals are too obscure for most modern viewers. The reputation of Ingres now rests mainly on his cursed portraits.

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Although Ingres spent his last years as a pillar of the Parisian art establishment, his path to these heights had been strewn with frustrations and the venom of critics.

Ingres, a short, squat man with dark, almost homely features, was born in 1780 in the rural town of Montaubon near Toulouse in southwestern France, the son of an artistic craftsman who worked as the local painter, decorator, sculptor and architect. The young Ingres showed an early flair for art and enrolled as a teenager in the Paris studio of Jacques-Louis David, the most celebrated painter of the time.

Ingres first unveiled his early work at the Salon of 1806, the annual, official competitive exhibition in Paris, and was quickly dealt a rude slap. The critics lambasted his two main submissions, a lavish, adoring study of a godlike "Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne" that looks like pure kitsch now, and a far more subdued portrait of Madame Philibert Riviere with some of the traits that would mark his great portraits of the future--including a predilection for beautiful women of high society.

The attacks of the critics infuriated Ingres, who heard the news while in Rome on a scholarship. "I am the victim of ignorance, bad faith, calumny . . . ," he wrote. "The scoundrels, they waited until I was away to assassinate my reputation."

The angered Ingres remained in Italy for 18 years, at first painting portraits of the French administrators who ruled the occupied Italian states during the reign of Napoleon I. When Napoleon was defeated and dethroned, the French bureaucracy scurried home, and Ingres depended on rich British tourists who ordered graphite pencil portraits during their stop in Rome.

Ingres felt confident that he would emerge successfully from what he called these "years of slavery." Wooing his future wife Madeleine Chapelle, whom he had never met, by correspondence in 1813, he wrote, "I have neither fortune nor a handsome face, but I dare say a distinguished and recognized talent, which needs only the first opportunity to flourish, and so I hope for fortune someday."

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