A French painter, b. at Montauban, August 29, 1780; d. at Paris, January 14, 1867
Ingres, JEAN-AUGUSTE-DOMINIQUE, a French painter, b. at Montauban, August 29, 1780; d. at Paris, January 14, 1867. His father sent him to study at Toulouse. At the age of sixteen he entered the famous studio of David, in Paris. Steeped in the theories of Mengs and Winckelmann, he had broken away from the conceits and libertinism of the eighteenth century and led art back to nature and the antique. In David's view the antique was but the highest expression of life, freed from all that is merely transitory, and removed from the caprices of whim and fashion. Ingres accepted his master's program in its entirety. But what in David's case made up a homogeneous system, answering the twin faculties of his vast and powerful organism, meant quite another matter for the pupil. The young artist was gifted with a wondrous sensitiveness for reality. No one has ever experienced such sharp, penetrating, clear-cut impressions with an equal aptitude for transferring them in their entirety to paper or canvas. But these exceptional gifts were handicapped by an extreme lack of inventiveness and originality. Unfortunately David's teaching filled him with the belief that high art consisted in imitating the antique, and that the dignity of a painter constrained him to paint historical subjects. Throughout his life Ingres did violence to himself to paint scenes of the order of his master's "Sabines", as he succeeded in doing in his "Achilles receiving the messengers of Agamemnon" (Paris, Ecole des Beaux-Arts), which in 1801 won the "Prix de Rome". But instead of being a living historical or poetical scene, this painting is but a collection of studies, stitched together with effort, and without any real unity of result.
Thus it was that there was always in Ingres a curious contradiction between his temperament and his education, between his ability and his theories. And this secret struggle between his realistic longings and his idealistic convictions explains the discords of his work. In the beginning, however, his youth was the main factor. Perhaps, too, his obscurity, the dearth of important orders, and the necessity of earning his living were all in his favor. Never was he greater or more himself than during this period of his career (1800-1820). His absolute realism and his intransigeance caused him to be looked on in David's school as an eccentric and revolutionary individual. Ingres had been friendly with a Florentine sculptor named Bartolini, and was strongly attracted by the works of the early Renaissance period, and by that art throbbing with life, and almost feverish in its manner of depicting nature, such as we find examples of in the works of Donatello and Filippo Lippi. He grew enthusiastic over archaic schools, over the weird poems of Ossian, over medieval costumes, in a word, over everything which by being unconventional seemed to him to draw nearer to reality, or at least gave him new thrills and sensations. . He was put down as "Gothic", as an imitator of Jean de Bruges (Jan van Eyck), and all the works he produced at this time bear the mark of oddity. This is especially true of his portraits. Those of "Madame Riviere" (Louvre, 1804), "Granet" (Aix-en-Provence, 1806), "Madame Aymon (La Belle Zelie)" (Rouen, 1806), "Madame Devancay" (Chantilly, 1807), and of "Madame de Senones" (Nantes, 1810) are unrivalled in all the world, and take a place next to the immortal creations of Titian and Raphael. Never was there completer absence of "manner", forgetfulness of set purpose, of systematic or poetical effort, never did a painter give himself up more fully to realism, or submit more absolutely to his model, to the object before him. No work brings home to us more clearly the expression of something definite unless it be those little portrait sketches drawn by this same artist in the days of his poverty and sold at twenty francs each, and which are now famous as the "Ingres crayons". The finest are to be seen at the Louvre and in the Bonnat Collection at Paris and Bayonne.
In 1806 Ingres set out for Rome, and in the Vatican he saw the frescoes of the greatest of the decorators, the master of the "Parnassus" and the "School of Athens". He at once persuaded himself that this was absolute beauty, and that these paintings held within them formulae and concepts revealing a full definition of art and of its immutable laws. And it is to this mistake of his that we owe not a few of his finest works; for had he not wrongly thought himself a classicist, he would not have felt himself bound to adopt the essential constituent of the classical language, namely, the nude figure. The nude, in modern realism, hints at the unusual, suggests something furtive and secret, and takes a place in the program of the realists only as something exceptional. Whereas with Ingres, thanks to the classical idealism of his doctrine, the nude was always a most important and sacred object of study. And to this study he applied, as in all his undertakings, a delicacy and freshness of feeling, an accuracy of observation toned down by a slightly sensual touch of charm, which place these paintings among his most precious works. Never was the joy of drawing and painting a beautiful body, of reproducing it in all the glory and grace of its youth, mastered by a Frenchman to such an extent, nor in a way so akin to the art of the great painters. "Oedipus" and the "Girl Bathing" (1808), the "Odalisque" (1814), the "Source" (1818)—all these canvases are in the Louvre—are among the most beautiful poems consecrated to setting forth the noblest meaning of the human figure. And yet they remain but incomparable "studies". The painter is all the while incapable of blending his sensations, of harmonizing them with one another so as to form a tableau.
This same taste for what is quaint led Ingres at this period to produce a host of minor anecdotal or historical works such as "Raphael and the Fornarina", "Francesca da Rimini" (1819, in the Angers Museum), etc., works that at times display the wit, the romance, and the caprice of a quattrocento miniature. Here the style becomes a part of the reality, and the archaism of the one only serves to bring out more clearly the originality of the other. In work of this order nothing the artist has left us is more complete than his "Sixtine Chapel" (Louvre, 1814). This magnificent effort, small in size though it is, is perhaps the most complete, the best balanced, the soundest piece of work the master ever wrought. At this time David, exiled by the Restoration, left the French school without a head, while the Romantic school, with the "Medusa" of Gericault (1818) and the "Dante" of Delacroix (1822), was clamoring for recognition. Ingres, hitherto but little known in his solitude in Italy, resolved to return to France and strike a daring blow. As early as 1820 he sent to the Salon his "Christ conferring the keys on Peter" (Louvre), a cold and restrained work which won immense success among the classicists. The "Vow of Louis XIII" (Montauban, 1824), a homage to Raphael, appeared opportunely as a contrast to Delacroix's "Massacre of Scio". Henceforward Ingres was looked up to as the leader of the Traditional School, and he proved his claim to the title by producing the famous "Apotheosis of Homer" (Louvre, 1827).
This marks the beginning of a new period, in which Ingres, absorbed in decorative works, is nothing more than the upholder of the classical teaching. Over and over again he did himself violence in composing huge mechanical works like the "St. Symphorin" (Autun, 1835), "The Golden Age" (Dampierre, 1843-49), the "Apotheosis of Napoleon", "Jesus in the midst of the Doctors" (Montauban, 1862), works that entailed most persevering labor, and which after all are but groups of "Studies", mosaics carefully inset and life-less. Some of Ingres's most beautiful portraits, those of Armand Bertin (Louvre, 1831), of Cherubini (Louvre, 1842), and of Madame d'Haussonville (1845) belong to this period. But gradually he gave up portrait painting, and wished only to be the painter of the ideal. Yet he was less so now than ever before. In his latest works his deficiency of composition becomes more and more evident. His life was uneventful. In 1820 he left Rome for Florence, and in 1824 he settled in Paris, which he never left save for six years (1836-1842) which he spent in Rome as director of the Villa Medici. He died at the age of 87, having continued to work up to his last day. Perhaps his prestige and his high authority counted for something in the renaissance of decorative painting that took place in the middle of the nineteenth century. But his undoubted legacy was a principle of quaintness or oddity and eccentricity, which was copied by artists like Signol and Jeanniot. Ingres was a naturalist who persisted in practicing the most idealistic style of art which was ever attempted in the French School. Like his great rival Delacroix, he may be said to have been a lonely phenomenon in the art of the nineteenth century.