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As boldly eccentric as his times

A Louvre survey puts Jean-AugusteDominique Ingres in his place amid a society of whipsawing extremes.

April 09, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Paris — HANDS down, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is the weirdest artist France produced in the first half of the 19th century. His highly refined painting style, built on exquisite draftsmanship and typically mixing heady ambition with a deep sense of artistic knowledge, can be breathtakingly moving. It can also be downright ludicrous. And sometimes it's both -- in the same canvas.

More than once in the mammoth survey of his career that is now drawing crowds to the basement rooms at the Louvre Museum here, you find yourself dumbstruck: What on Earth could have possessed Ingres to do that?

Take the monumental "Jupiter and Thetis" (1811), which greets visitors at the show's entrance. Ingres painted the picture in Rome, where he'd gone on a belated scholarship after the French Academy reopened its school there. He was 31. A decade earlier he had won the Rome Prize for a complex, well-crafted and finally rather dull history painting, which told the story of Agamemnon's ambassadors visiting Achilles in a desperate effort to reenlist his aid in the Trojan War.

Ingres made the earlier prize-winning picture an essay in stylistic variation, which drew on his first-rate classical training in the studio of JacquesLouis David. The picture meant to show how much he knew -- a sort of painterly SAT exam -- and the result carried the day.

Achilles and his lover Patroclus are on one side of the composition. Their listless, elegant, almost feminine figures are contrasted with the firm, dynamic, gruff musculature of Agamemnon's battle-weary warriors across the way. Achilles, rising from a daybed, holds a lute, while Patroclus poses nearby like a consummate Greek statue.

Together these refined figures are not only Greek heroes. They subtly symbolize music, poetry and art as something distinct from the world of dramatic action. Ingres' composition suggests art is something fuller, richer and finally essential to the flowering of history. Everyone knows the heroic name of Achilles, after all, but who remembers the nameless ambassadors?

With this entry into the Rome Prize sweepstakes the artist did have his own agenda to consider -- and to flaunt. Everyone would know the name of Ingres too, while the painter-bureaucrats who ran the powerful French art establishment would disappear with time. Ingres' ambition was boundless, and he cast his lot with the lute-wielding Achilles.

"Jupiter and Thetis" depicts another related story of artful pleading, in a huge canvas dominated by two larger-than-life-size figures. The king of the gods, with one arm holding an enormous staff and the other resting on a firm yet puffy cloud, is seated in the sky on a massive throne. A fierce eagle waits at his side, warily eyeballing Thetis.

She's the sea-nymph mother of Achilles and a great beauty, and she beseeches the hirsute Jupiter to intervene in the Trojan War on her son's behalf. She kneels at Jupiter's side. Like some X-rated Dorothy come to beg indulgence from the Wizard of Oz, she lets her robe slide off her porcelain body and gather artfully down around her hips. Her left hand reaches up to gently caress the beard beneath his lips.

This "pretty-please" gesture provides rhetorical melodrama of a cringe-inducing sort. Still, it causes Jupiter's wife, Juno, to glare at the duo from off in the heavenly distance. (It's hard to tell whether jealous Juno is floating in clouds or if that's just steam coming out of her ears.) Were the painting not so funny -- heterosexual camp -- it would be repulsive. Rarely has the sexist delineation between brute male authority and dangerous female eroticism (and rivalry) been so starkly drawn.

But it's echt Ingres. You can practically hear the painting clanging.

Composed in sweeping forms -- Jupiter is a gigantic block, immovable and timeless, while Thetis is a sensuous, slithery and compliant egg -- the painting telegraphs monumentality. For a trumpet-style Major Statement, however, it's also detailed in surprisingly fussy ways. The lure of the artfully tangled folds of drapery and the lavish and exotic jewelry pull you in the least momentous directions. (The ulterior motive: My, look how talented Monsieur Ingres is!) It's a big, bold tour de force that leaves you scratching your head.

Ingres thought it was just great -- so great that it was the first painting he sent from Rome back to Paris to show everyone just how well he was doing down in the land of Raphael. A few years before, the artist had tried and failed to impress Napoleon with a bombastic portrait. He showed the soldier swathed in velvet, ermine, satin embroidery and gold and seated on a massive throne in a pose almost identical to Jupiter's. The new painting meant to fix things by returning to classical roots. If "The Ambassadors of Agamemnon Visiting Achilles" was an SAT exam, "Jupiter and Thetis" was a makeup test.

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