Friday, August 29, 2008

Painting for the Man

When Courbet set out to make a name in French art, he knew he had to get a reaction from two artists in particular. When Eugène Delacroix gave Courbet his blessing as the next generation of Romanticism, Courbet was thrilled. When Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres shook his head and called Courbet nothing but trouble, Courbet was even happier. Born August 29, 1780, Ingres stood for the establishment long after the anti-establishment was cool. When he painted Napoleon on his Imperial Throne (above, in 1806), Ingres saw himself as the heir to the state-approved painter role of Jacques-Louis David. Unfortunately for Ingres, Napoleon met his Waterloo and Ingres’ beloved Neoclassicism came face to face with the Romantics. Ingres struggled for years, ignored by critics as derivative of David and little else. Today, we can appreciate Ingres for his cool, grand style, which always seems to sneer at those below its station. One of the great draftsmen of his age and a beautiful colorist, Ingres always seemed to win the hearts of those in power more than the hearts of the average viewer, even today, and perhaps even more today when painting for “the Man” doesn’t necessarily win you points.

Ingres languished in semi-obscurity until the rousing success of The Vow of Louis XIII (above, from 1824). After the trials of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars, France finally seemed ready for nostalgia for the days of the monarchy. Ingres chooses the moment when Louis XIII dedicated the country of France to the Virgin Mary in hopes of giving birth to an heir. After twenty-three years of trying, Louis XIII and his queen finally gave birth to the future Louis XIV. All of the excesses of the French kings that led to the revolution were gently forgotten in the inevitable pendulum shift back to conservative thinking when whole nations found themselves captivated by the drama of royal succession. The Paris Salon embraced Ingres and his style, forging the state-run art taste machine that would entrench establishment mores for decades until Edouard Manet and the Impressionists shook things up. Ingres saw himself as the modern Raphael, standard-bearer of “good” taste and moral painting against the rabble-rousing forces of Romanticism and its descendents.

Thanks to the success of The Vow of Louis XIII, earlier works by Ingres such as La Grande Odalisque (above, from 1814) suddenly were acceptable. In his Orientalist nudes, often set in harems, Ingres never really captures the exotic, licentious feel of the East that fascinated nineteenth century Europeans. All of his little touches, from the peacock feathers to the rich fabrics, seem like dead studio props. However, Ingres does loosen up a bit in La Grande Odalisque, his finest nude. The Ingres sneer appears again on the countenance of the woman, but the beautiful depiction of the human form as a work of art itself sets this apart from everything else Ingres ever painted. The woman’s back stretches impossibly thanks to extra sets of vertebrae inserted by Ingres to accentuate her curves. Ingres allowed himself moments of freedom, especially when playing on his violin the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Gluck with his friend, the wild-man violinist Paganini. Later generations of artists would appreciate Ingres’ portraits for their skillfulness, but it was in those brief, tantalizing moments of freedom that they found an example, and perhaps a cautionary tale, to learn from.

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