Born in France in 1780, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ humble beginnings were no obstacle to success in the world of art. Although he lacked the rigid formal education of most of his peers, his father, who dabbled in everything from painting to sculpture to music, had always encouraged his eldest son to pursue his talent and passion for the arts.
10. Ingres’ early life played a crucial role in his later career
When Ingres was only 11, his father sent him to the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he laid the groundwork for his future career. At the Academy, Ingres was trained by a host of important and influential artists, most significantly, Guillaume-Joseph Roques. Roques was a neoclassicist who greatly admired the artists of the Italian Renaissance, passing his enthusiasm on to the young Ingres.
9. Ingres’ work is emblematic of the Neoclassical movement
The Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries had been about the rediscovery of classical principles and the furthering of human understanding. In terms of art, this often meant going back to the ideas of symmetry, harmony and simplicity that characterised ancient architecture and sculpture. The 18th century also saw renewed zeal for the ancient world, prompted by discoveries at Pompeii and the rising political powers hoping to emulate the empires of Greece and Rome.
Influenced by the legendary artists of the Renaissance, as well as the fashions of his own times, Ingres produced work based on classical models. These often involved simple yet true-to-life representations of the human form, particularly male nudes, often in the heroic contrapposto pose of ancient statues. Above all, Ingres aimed at a unity of form, proportion and light, with colour playing more of a secondary role.
8. But he was also determined to revolutionize the world of art
Ingres was not content, however, with simply reproducing the style of his forerunners. He is recorded to have told an acquaintance that he wanted to be a ‘revolutionary’ artist, and in order to achieve this, he worked in seclusion for much of his early career.
At only 22 he won a scholarship from the French state allowing him to travel to Italy to study the work of the classical and Renaissance artists he so admired. The winners of this prize were required to send back work to demonstrate their progress over the course of their travels; these usually consisted of paintings of classical statues or buildings. On the contrary, Ingres submitted The bather of Valpincon, which raised eyebrows among the more conservative members of Paris’ art circles. It was not to be Ingres’ last controversial move.
7. Ingres lived during a time of great social upheaval, which is reflected in his art
The French Revolution broke out during Ingres’ childhood, and the world-altering event sent shockwaves through the nation’s art: it was felt that a new era in history was beginning, but one with its roots in the glorious civilizations of the ancient world. Napoleon’s triumphs across Europe had brought with them a wealth of foreign booty that was publicly exhibited to demonstrate the superiority of France. This gave the country’s artists the opportunity to study in detail historical masterpieces from across the continent.
A year before Napoleon’s coronation, Ingres was one of the artists commissioned to paint a portrait of the leader, and three years later, he produced another piece, which shows the emperor seated majestically on the Imperial Throne. Packed with symbols of power, the sumptuous work proves that Ingres was invested in recreating the epic heroism of ancient legend. His portrait, however, met with a hostile reception from critics when unveiled in public; it is not known whether Napoleon himself ever saw it.
6. Despite a frosty reception, Ingres continued to work on new and important commissions
Ingres subsequently distanced himself from the Academy, and took on private commissions from some important international figures, from the King of Naples to the French governor of Rome. The later employed Ingres’ skills for the decoration of a great palace in preparation for a visit from Napoleon. For the emperor’s chambers, Ingres painted The Dream of Ossian.
The subject-matter of this large painting was taken from a book of Scottish epic verse, which Napoleon had carried into battle with him. Despite the provenance of the story, Ingres employs classical imagery to represent the tale of heroism. Naked bodies are interspersed with armed warriors, all floating atop a cloud while a bard huddles beneath. The painting was later returned to Ingres by the Pope, who thought it was inappropriate for the walls of a Catholic building.
5. Ingres also became well-known for his portrait drawings, a medium he is said to have despised
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In between commissions from the rich and powerful, Ingres occasionally has to resort to the more humble medium of drawing. He produced over 500 portraits, some simple sketches and some in full colour, their subjects often wealthy tourists or upper-class women.
Although he understood and appreciated the importance of drawing in the composition of a greater work, stating that ‘drawing is seven eighths of what makes up painting’, he clearly felt that these minor commercial pieces were beneath him, angrily correcting anyone who referred to him as a portrait drawer. Despite the artist’s disdain, his portraits are now considered some of his most prized work, especially those of his famous friends.
4. Ingres’ portraits of the elite contain much information about nineteenth-century society
The nineteenth-century brought with it technological and manufacturing advancements that resulted in the rise of materialism and increased demand for luxury goods. The new middle and upper classes were determined to demonstrate their status with all manner of exotic and expensive accouterments, and a professional portrait was considered a good symbol of wealth and worldliness. The background furnishings and the sitters’ dress in Ingres’ portraits offer a glimpse into the new world of materialism.
There is also a notable difference in the faces of his models, which again reflects contemporary society. The faces of his women tend towards the same absent-minded expression, any sense of personality substituted for standard doe-eyes, half-smile and a delicate complexion.
On the contrary, the male subjects express a wide range of emotions: some smirk, some snarl and some laugh. This distinction conveys a lot about the roles held by men and women in nineteenth-century society.
3. Despite his placid female portraits, Ingres certainly did not shy away from the sensual in his paintings
The rise of powerful empires during the eighteenth and nineteenth-century imbued Europe with a fascination in the exotic, as the public flocked to open exhibitions to examine the wonders brought back from across the world. This phenomenon – later labelled Orientalism – was often associated with the forbidden, the explicit and the sexual.
Ingres was no less captured by this trend than his contemporaries and used foreign subject-matter as a way of painting extremely provocative images without offending European sensibilities. His most risque paintings, namely The Grand Odalisque, Odalisque with Slave and The Turkish Bath, are all set in a stereotypically foreign land, with background figures wearing the turbans that were used in art as a hallmark of the east and of Asia.
They convey the tension between rigorous respect for tradition and enthusiasm for the exotic that characterized the age. Indeed The Grand Odalisque was Ingres’ most financially rewarding masterpiece.
2. Ingres was at the heart of the greatest artistic rivalry of the period
The neoclassicism represented by Ingres valued simplicity, harmony and balance, and therefore came into conflict with the contemporary Romantic movement, which conveyed bold and striking passion. This rival movement was headed up by Ingres’ rival, Eugène Delacroix. Both artists had come to prominence at the same time and often focused on similar subjects (Delacroix had also famously painted a lounging, languorous odalisque).
Ingres and Delacroix were in constant competition at the annual Paris Salons, each submitting pieces that went against the principles so prized by the other and dividing critical opinion across Europe. It is said, however, that when the two artists happened to cross paths in their later years, they departed with an amiable handshake.
1. Although much of his work was reminiscent of a bygone age, Ingres had a huge influence on artists to come
From the likes of Edgar Degas to Matisse, Ingres’ influence would continue to be felt within French art for centuries to come, inspiring work in a huge range of genres. His bold use of colour, careful consideration of proportion and striving after beauty meant that his work held sway over all manner of artistic endeavour. Even Picasso is said to have acknowledged his debt to Ingres, even though their styles could hardly be more distinct.
Ingres’ ongoing influence secured his legacy as one of the nineteenth century’s most important artists, meaning that his paintings and drawings are still considered hugely important and valuable pieces of art.