Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres through A Multi-dimensional Lens

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres through A Multi-dimensional Lens

Picture : Self-portrait, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1804, public domain

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 - 1867) was a prestigious French painter of the 19th century. Chinese academia regards him as one of the representatives of Neoclassic Painting, for Ingres practiced the core purpose of arts laid down by the French Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux-Arts) and advanced the classicism over the 70 years of his life as a painter. Nonetheless, classicism, as only one dimension through which we interpret Ingres’ paintings, is insufficient to summarize his overall painting style.

The book titled Ingres (Phaidon Press) that presents us the painter in a multi-dimensional fashion was published in 2008 by Andrew Sheldon, a professor in the Art History department at The Ohio State University and an expert on the research about the Arts of Ingres. Sheldon is the co-author of Portrait by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, an exhibition catalogue, and the author of Ingres and His Critics (2005). In 2016, Boundless Books acquired the copyright of the original books from Phaidon press and, under the name of “Phaidon Classics: Time Immemorial”, introduced a series of art history books in their Chinese versions, with Ingres being one of them.

Who is Ingres?

Ingres was exposed to academicism at a young age and adhered to the intrinsic principles of the traditions of the academicism for the entirety of his life. Since youth, Ingres aspired to be a history painter and had always claimed to be one. However, he is mostly well-renowned for portraits and historic genre painting rather than history painting.

In 1801, his work the Ambassadors of Agamemnon won him the Prix de Rome which funded his study in Rome. In 1825, he was promoted as an academician of the French Academy of Fine Arts; in 1835, he served as the director of the French Academy in Rome. As Sheldon says, “It is likely that there is no other artist in the world who has had such honorable academic credentials and glories like Ingres.”

Ambassadors of Agamemnon, 1801, École supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris

In the Napoleon era, Ingres’ major clients were the French official institutions to Rome, who favored portraits. To meet their demands, Ingres created a number of portraits. About 1810, Ingres won recognition from king and queen of Naples and commissioned by the queen Murat, created the world-renown La Grande Odalisque, a female nude portrait that now has become a household name.

La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Musée du Louvre

In 1814, Napoleon was thwarted and the Bourbon dynasty was restored. While the officials of the French Empire were passionate about portraits, the royalists in the restoration favored the nostalgic historic genre painting. Ingres painted a series of famous historic genre painting to eke out an existence, such as Paolo and Francesca. In the first half of his life, the painter had to make a living mainly through creating portraits and genre paintings, the less graceful contents of which have made Ingres the most famed French painter of the 19th century.

Paolo and Francesca, 1819, Musée des Beaux-arts d'Angers

Since 1825, Ingres’ financial conditions were improved. He claimed once that his portraits painting would have to come to a halt to make way for large-sized historic paintings. As a matter of fact, he still produced multiple portraits of the celebrity during the same period of time, not for alleviating financing pressure but for personal habit, which indicates that Ingres could hardly resist the invitation of the celebrities when facing their breath-taking beauty. While portraits used to be the embodiment of reality for Ingres, it epitomized the idealized beauty for him in this period of time. For instance, the delicacy of the Comtesse d’Haussonville and the beauty of Baroness Betty de Rothschild could be restored in his paintings regardless of time passage.

The Era of Ingres

The Industrial Revolution in 19th century brought the Europeans into breath-taking trends characterized by the rise of Paris as a modern metropolis, streets with arcades and the accelerating social commercialization that overwhelmed the French. Ingres witnessed three revolutions (the French Revolution in 1789, the July Revolution and the French Revolution of 1848) in the most turbulent years of French history during which change of multiple dynasties took place, including First French Empire, Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, French Second Republic and Second French Empire. Ingres had an acute sense of sluggishness, as Andrew Shelton puts it, for he indulged himself in the arts of ancient Greek and Rome or renaissance even when the progressionists claimed that we must follow the shifting changes of time in lockstep. With his sluggishness, he ruminated on the modern features of 19th century and repudiated progressivism by saying “what if your time is wrong? If you ignore virtues and beauty, shall I follow suit?”. Ingres, full of nostalgia for the past, created a fairy-tale world as an admonition to people that they shall never forget to fathom when marching forward and never forget to look into the past when facing the future.

A Classicist with “An Eccentric” Style

Ingres’ art works are not pure imitation of the classic paintings. Despite his affection for Raffaello Santi, he tried to create something of his own rather than to blindly imitate his idol. Noteworthily, Ingres has brought some freshness to classicism not for his rebellion against its principles but for his taking them to extremes. Guided by “an ideal of beauty”, Ingres insisted on demonstrating eternal beauty in his paintings by correcting and embellishing nature.

Firstly, Ingres was dedicated to allowing the paintings to show flatness via removing the impression of space. While studying in Rome, Ingres submitted The Bather of Valpinçon and Oedipus and Sphinx to the Academic Committee of the French Academy of Fine Arts as homework and received criticism from the committee members that his works lacked colors and an impression of space, which, however, evolved to become Ingres’ unique painting style that was both denounced and complimented later on.

The Bather of Valpinçon, 1808, Musée du Louvre

Secondly, the uniqueness of Ingres’ art works can also be explained by the deformation and distortion of human structure in the paintings, mostly pronounced in female portraits. Take La Grande Odalisque for instance. Firstly, overly slender, the portraited female in the painting has a pair of asymmetrical shoulders with her hips connected to her thighs; secondly, her breasts are in the shape of balls, pointy in an awkward way; thirdly, regardless of her exquisite facial features, her face is in lack of contours and an impression of space. In general, while the portraited Odalisque is unreal for the lack of a clear outline, the fabrics in the painting, in a conspicuous contrast, are nothing short of realistic. Sheldon points out that over a long period of time, people are attuned to reducing women’s naked bodies to objects to excite human senses, for which the portraits of women’s naked bodies were created to fulfill human’s visual pleasure. However, Ingres broke away from the formula-like painting style by lessening women’s body features and created more room for the aesthetic evaluation of the paintings.          

Ingres by 一好阅读(Boundless Books: Phaidon Classics )

Andrew Sheldon’s Ingres is just a window through which we could understand the painter and his works in a more profound and all-round way. It has reversed our stereotype about the painter and his works by presenting us a painter filled with contradictions, as though he himself were a painting rich in expressiveness.

While in a sense, Ingres, as if a biography, recounts Ingres’ 70 years of life as a painter, technically speaking, it can’t be categorized as a biography given that it has analyzed the painter’s artistic background and his legacy in details from the perspective of art history and discussed the latest academic research on Ingres’ paintings in recent years from the perspective of academic history.

Three art masters: Titian & Caravaggio & Ingres

They are the embodiment of 16th century, 17th century and 18th-19th century respectively, not only dominating in their own living era but also leaving profound impact on many of their successors, an achievement that has even overshadowed the Three Masters of Renaissance.

Classics need to be interpreted by classics. These three books bring you to the places where the visual revolutions were taking place through the all-round and authentic description of the life stories and works of three western art masters, rendering you a full picture of how western arts developed throughout the 400 years since 16th century.

The Return of Time, the series that took three years to complete, was co-produced by Boundless Books and Phaidon Press. Phaidon classics are the world-recognized art collections that mainly include legendary magnum opus of western art history. The Return of Time consists of three classic books written respectively by Peter Humfrey, Catherine Puglisi and Andrew Sheldon, all of whom started their career from their research on the three artists, with Professor Humbrey nearly a spokesman for Titian, Professor Puglisi a native Italian researcher on Caravaggio and Mr. Sheldon the most accomplished researcher on Ingres and the epoch of Ingres.

Italo Calvino suggested in Why read the classics, “The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).”

Arthur Schopenhauer once suggested: “Bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind. In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

It is classics as such that we must read.

These books, as though a small-sized museum, provide the answers for whomever reads and loves them, with high-resolution big images for those who are particular about the quality of pictures, with detailed explanation for those who are inquisitive about the stories behind the pictures, and with academic materials in the index, notes, documentations and references for those who are looking for them. Boundless Books Phaidon Classics: Time Immemorial want to provide our readers with a reading experience as if they were in an open gallery.






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