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The faces of an epoch.

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Introduction

THE FACES OF AN EPOCH By Robert Hughes (Time, March 15, 1999) You can't look at great portraits today without a certain nostalgia The painted portrait is a form that like blank verse drama in the theater or the caryatid in architecture would seem to be on its last legs. Indeed, with few exceptions it has no legs and seems unlikely to grow new ones. Photography took them away. But older portraits have hardly lost their magic and their grip on the imagination. This is why "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch" which is on view (through April 25) at the National Gallery in London and will be seen later this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is such an invigorating show. And the subtitle fits. Almost from the time they left the easel, the portraits of Jean-Auguste Dommique Ingres (1780 1867) were seen as being more than personal likenesses. They had a defining character Ingres s period has coalesced around his art In the first half of his life, when he was in Italy, the Mecca of the aspiring French painter, his pencil drawings caught the upper crust of foreigners there - the milords Anglais and their families on the Grand Tour, the French officials who ran Napoleon's kingdom m Italy, his fellow expatriate artists-with stylish brio and steely exactness. ...read more.

Middle

"I need it as much as Saul needed to have it, for his healing," he pointedly said, referring to the mad King of the Jews to whom David played the harp. Ingres was brusque, dogmatic, and could brook no argument, especially not from his students at the French Academy in Rome. With Ingres, you either agreed or got out. Compared with him, Delacroix was a model of suavity and balance. Ingres's creative life was a testament to sublimation. His classicism sprang from intense feeling for nature, distilled through innumerable preliminary drawings. His decades in Italy showed him a living classicism, not the dead one of the academic plaster cast. He copied incessantly from the masters, as later painters - Degas, for instance - would copy him. Copying and invention were parts of the same process: the search for exactness and visual truth-"nature without exaggeration, without forced brilliance," as he said of Titian. The miracle of Ingres's talent was that his preparatory labors clarified the impulse without using it up. "Make lines, young man, many lines, from memory or from nature. It's in this way that you will become a good artist," he told Degas. Making portraits was, for Ingres, a trying battleground between reality and representation. He could fill his history paintings with ideal types of human form and expression; he could give his nudes an extra vertebra or two, but a portraitist had no such liberty. ...read more.

Conclusion

It's a wonderful blend of intelligibility and mysteriousness. On one hand it is an intensely material painting: the care Ingres took with every last detail of her costume and massive jewelry - the cascading rose-embroidered fabric, the tassels on the bodice-almost defies belief. On the other it harks back in time. Her pose is taken from that of the goddess of Arcadia in an antique mural from Hercula-neum that Ingres saw in Naples; whence her bizarre hand, that 3 pampered starfish of flesh. Then there is the profile reflection of her face in the mirror, one of the most discreetly enigmatic "presences" in all painting. Looking at Madame Moitessier and her double, one can see why Ingres had such an obsessional hold on Picasso. All the dropsical women of his so-called classic period, the early 1920s, are peasant cousins of this goddess of the salon, and the rhythmic curves of Ingres's drawing would continue to serve Picasso as emblems of peace and sexual satisfaction. How would Ingres have liked this show, the first ever dedicated to his portraits? Impossible to guess. He might have objected to seeing what he considered the lesser part of his work isolated from the greater part, the paintings of history and myth. A modern viewer couldn't care less, and shouldn't. For with the passage of time, Ingres's portraits have become history paintings in their own right. ...read more.

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