- Ingres and His CriticsOur PickBy Andrew Carrington Shelton
- Ingres: Sa vie, ses travaux, sa doctrine, d'apres les notes manuscrites et les lettres du maitreOur PickBy Henri Delaborde
Important Art by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Perhaps now the most iconic portrait of Emperor Napoléon I, Ingres's painting was originally dismissed as overly gothic, archaic, and even "barbaric." Opulently adorned, the newly crowned emperor is represented among a hodgepodge of Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian symbols. The intention, to legitimize his claim to authority, is overshadowed by the strangeness of this imposing frontality; his pallid face emerges from layers of ostentatiously regal garb to look past the viewer with a stony gaze.
Ingres's painting was inspired by art historical depictions of power; it was a strategy similarly employed by Napoleon himself, who often used symbolism associated with the Roman and Holy Roman empires to reinforce his rule. Pictorially, Ingres looks directly to the God the Father panel from Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (looted during the Napoleonic Wars, this altarpiece was part of the new Musée Napoléon); replacing God with Napoleon, encircled by the golden laurel wreath and throne, Ingres suggests his sitter's power, even divinity. This pose also recalled the legendary statue of Zeus at Olympia by the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias. Although that statue had been lost in antiquity, the Neoclassical interest in such relics made it a newly relevant and recognizable reference for the 19th-century viewer.
Coupled with these art historical references, the presentation of Napoleon's body and accessories underscores his power. Indeed, Ingres uses every inch of the considerable, nearly 9' tall, canvas to project Napoléon's political and martial prowess, assembling an eclectic yet legible iconography: Napoléon's robes are of rich purple, a color long associated with royalty and the Roman empire; a heraldic shield bearing the crest of the Papal states can be seen above his left shoulder, a reference to his position as King of Italy; his Legion of Honor medal rests on a lavish ermine collar; and the hand of justice sits atop a rod that crosses subtly with a bejeweled sword (modeled after the sword of Charlemagne, a ruler that the emperor sought to emulate), representing a balance of fairness and might. Most pointedly, Napoléon grasps a scepter in his right hand topped with a statuette of Charlemagne who holds the fleur-de-lis (associated with the royal Bourbon family) and the Imperial orb. This scepter, believed to have belonged to Charles IV, positions Napoleon as the successor to the French royal family as well as the historical line of Emperors.
Despite these art historical precedents, Ingres's portrait was soundly criticized at the Salon of 1806; it was even dismissed as "unintelligible" by his own teacher, Jacques-Louis David. As the Neoclassical style began to ebb, with tastes preferring a more natural and contemporary representation of power, Ingres's complex compendium of historical motifs seemed retrograde and outdated. Even though it was the target of scorn, with this complicated web of iconography and symbolism, Ingres ushered in a new twist on the Neoclassical and demonstrated his interests in art historical references and stylistic experiments.
Determined to prove his talent, the young Ingres dedicated himself to history painting, the most respected genre at the Académie. True to his neoclassical training, Ingres selected his subject from Greek mythology, but his choice of subject departs from the stoic heroes of David. Here we see the tragic hero Oedipus confronted with the riddle of the Sphinx. The dire threat he faces is suggested by the ominous pile of human remains, compounded by Oedipus's companion, shown fleeing in terror in the background. Although the painting still centers on the classical male nude, the narrative is more complicated than David's moral universe and suggests a step towards the complicated psychologies of Romanticism. Oedipus's correct answer will allow him to escape death and continue on the road to Thebes, yet his destiny is doomed.
When Ingres sent the painting to Paris as part of his first envoi de Rome, a typical practice for winners of the Prix de Rome, it received lukewarm feedback; critics claimed that the contours were not strong enough, the lighting was lackluster and the relationship between the figures was not sufficiently articulated. Ingres addressed these remarks later in his career when he returned to the canvas in the mid-1820s and enlarged it on three sides. What resulted is a highly engaging image that demonstrates his knowledge of the canon as well as his command of the nude male, a staple in the neoclassical Académie.
Oedipus's calm composure and commanding pose projects the themes of the tale that were closely tied to post-Revolutionary France: the predominance of human intelligence and its role in successful civilizations. And yet, Ingres does not shy away from the darker side of the story; the dramatic chiaroscuro, created by an upward-facing light (a lesson learned from studying the work of Guercino in Rome), lends the painting an ominous overtone. It subtly foreshadows Oedipus's tragic fate, namely, his marriage to his mother Jocasta and eventual death. Sigmund Freud, who would re-popularize the Greek myth in his formulation of the Oedipus Complex, owned a print after Ingres's painting, which hung near the couch in his consulting room.
Within the long tradition of the female nude, Ingres's version demonstrates both his academic training and his penchant for experimentation. Indeed, the depiction of the idealized nude extends back to classical depictions of Aphrodite in ancient Greece. The reclining woman had been a popular motif since the Renaissance; Titian's Venus of Urbino was certainly an important example for Ingres. Here, Ingres continues this tradition by drawing the figure in a series of sinuous lines that emphasize the soft curves of her body, as well as by situating the woman in a lavish space, adorned with lustrous fabrics and intricately detailed jewels. Though he renders the body with the sculptural surface and clean lines associated with Neoclassicism, Ingres's painting also broke the expectations of pictorial illusionism by distorting the body beyond the plausible. Ingres has taken David's directive to idealize the human form to an extreme, so much that he was admonished by critics when he exhibited this painting at the Salon of 1819. The woman would need two or three extra vertebrae to achieve such a dramatic, twisted pose. So too do the figure's legs seem out of proportion, the left improbably elongated and disjointed at the hip. The result is paradoxical: she is at once strikingly beautiful and eerily strange.
For the sake of propriety, respectable depictions of the female nude had always been removed from the everyday by labeling them Venus, Diana, Suzannah, or some similar mythological or religious narrative that justified their nakedness. Further distancing Ingres from his Neoclassical roots, La Grande Odalisque's setting creates that necessary difference, not by referring to the ancient past, but through Orientalism. During Napoleon's empire, France consolidated its colonial possessions, beginning a highly politicized and problematic fascination with "the other." Ingres's odalisque, a term that refers to a concubine in a harem, is festooned with the trappings of what was then considered "the Orient," namely, Turkey and the Near East. Her peacock feather fan and bejeweled turban, as well as the delicate hookah pipe at far right, are markers of exoticism that allow for her nudity without offending the viewer (this painting was commissioned by Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples and sister to the Emperor Napoleon). To compare, when Édouard Manet painted his 1863 Olympia as a modern, French nude woman who gazed directly at the viewer, it was considered an immoral outrage.
Ingres's ability to merge elements of Neoclassical linearity and Romantic sensuality, resisting an easy categorization, provided a model for future avant-gardes. This particular painting has also become a flashpoint for discussions on the male gaze and the female subject, often appropriated by 20th-century artists as a means of art historical and institutional critique. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous women artists, transposed a gorilla head onto the body of the Odalisque for their poster Do Women Have To Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? (1989), exposing the sexism and erasure of women in the contemporary art world by declaring, "Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female." The group recreated the piece in 2011 with an equally damning set of statistics, again using Ingres's nude by way of illustration.