[ISSN 1974-028X]








filosofia & religione


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N. 127 - Luglio 2018 (CLVIII)

The Modernity of Ingres

From the Cult of Classicism to the Discovery of Anti-Naturalism

by Angelo Viglioglia


During his life, jean Auguste Dominique Ingres has often been criticized. In the 1920s, Agnes Mongan may have been one of the first critics to properly focus on Ingres’ complexity. She recognized the rigour of his formation. His study of Classical art was intensive, patient, and accurate. According to Mongan, Ingres studied, highlighted, and copied ancient books in order to learn, as well as possible. Ingres attentively reproduced many details from Classical Greek statues he had never seen, live. He drew their images from painted illustrations and used their details on the friezes, decorations, and bases in his paintings. Ingres did so mixing real with fictitious elements.


Mongan observes that Ingres was not just a good disciple or “professor.” As a matter of fact, he was also capable of “doing” art. Ingres’ “capability of reasoning was sensible and refined.

[Ingres] was capable of fixing and creating shapes.” He tirelessly searched for precise contours and expressive gestures. Furthermore, Ingres was extremely careful with the technical stages of painting. Camesasca orderly lists these stages: perspective guidelines, the delineation of space, nude figure drawing, the placement of figures in space, monochrome painting on the characters’ complexions, and painting accessories.


Ingres’ usage of colours has usually been prudent and cautious. All Ingres’ paintings were varnished. As a result, their preservation has always been good. Romantic art has usually been characterized by undefined shapes and an apparent lack of balance, which did not characterize Ingres’ art. Therefore, Ingres appeared as a stubborn cantor of the past during his age.


The judgement of Ingres’ accusers is varied. Emphasizing Ingres’ uncommon longevity, G. Briganti argues that this painter lived through several historical stages. Although he had been educated by David, he died after Eugene Delacroix, his main rival. When Ingres died, both Courbet’s Realism and Monet’s Impressionism were already developing.


Actually, Ingres has never introduced himself as an anachronistic man. Only his contemporaries, excited by Romanticism, thought so about him. Ingres was a very restless man and worried about his successes and failures. Because of his contradictions, Ingres was also a very modern man. The more Ingres defended Classical rules, the more he emphasized their anachronism. As a result, he anticipated new artistic trends.


Focusing on the objects and problems of viewpoints, modern painters saw Ingres as an interesting inspirer. A. Pieyre de Mandiargues talks about Ingres’ capability of analysing reality. “[Ingres] was very attentive, so that he can even seem a maniac.” Ingres’ glance seized all of his contours and details. It also reduced all of the elements depicted to objects by reinterpreting reality. Moreover, he manifested his distance from reality and power over it.


Occupying Ingres’ canvases, the women he portrayed were analysed and “reduced” by Ingres’ pictorial power to objects. Nevertheless, the painter’s intentions were neither almighty, nor sadistic. Instead, Ingres felt devotion and admiration toward them. Although Baudelaire criticized Ingres, he emphasized his love for women and listed his virtues.


Baudelaire himself argues that Ingres was “Flemish in drawing up, individualist and naturalist in drawing, turned to antiquity, congenial, and idealist in reasoning”.


According to the same writer, understanding Ingres’ artwork requires as much care as Ingres had as a painter. Baudelaire wrote about Ingres in 1846. Clearly, Ingres’ rapprochement was not superficial. It was instead the result of many analyses and reflections, as evidenced by the sentences of critics. All denigrators were instead annoyed by Ingres’ precision, so that they interpreted it as pedantry. The other critics recognized his not only technical skills, but also spiritual beauty. According to Jamot, all of the people portrayed by Ingres could achieve “the immortal authority of archetypes”. Academics accused Ingres of painting “Gothic” paintings.



Academics ignored Ingres’ capability of respecting the rules of Classical art. Romantics instead accused him of Academism. Actually, both Academics and Romantics saw Ingres as an “incorruptible magistrate”. In his essay about Ingres’ artwork, edited by Camesasca, Emilio Radius talks about eternity in Ingres’ masterpieces. Radius argues that “[Ingres’] portraits are eternal, and so are the dignified features and haughty gestures of his characters”.


Ingres’ nudes cannot be censured because they have sacred dignity. According to Radius, Ingres tried to consecrate the profane. All these attitudes make the difference between Raphael and him. Divine Raphael was capable of mixing ideas, seen as the depictions of superior beauty, with nature and human appearances.


In Raphael’s artwork, soul and nature mix, and ideas are realized. He just added gracefulness and was mainly animated by faith. Unlike Raphael’s world, Ingres’ missed its faith. In the 19th century, human centrality, which had characterized the Renaissance, did not exist anymore. At that time, material values became central.


After Napoleon’s rise to power, self-celebration, due to industrialization, became a more popular attitude, and the relationship of people to nature changed. 19th century capitalist bourgeoisie tried to control nature. Human bodies became less and less capable of revealing gracefulness. In Romantic portraits, characters’ passions became more and more important. These passions replaced Raphael’s calmness and imperturbability. Beyond what linked Ingres to golden Rules, his portraits, historical subjects, and mythological characters reflect the tastes of his age.


As symbols of Romantic tastes, the subjects of Ingres’ paintings cannot be confused with calm Renaissance images. 19th century society was more complex and held different values. During the Romantic period, all myths changed their meanings, and so did faith, love, courage, and power. All of the subjects painted by Ingres should be recognized as typical productions of their own age. Panofsky notices a very complex meanings web in all works of art.


Of course, Ingres’ signifiers and meanings were different from Raphael’s. Thanks to formalist analyses, the works of art of both painters can approach each other. The two artists were animated by the needs of their very different contexts. As Wollheim said, Ingres added pathos to Raphael’s art. The former’s artwork was characterized by many contradictions.


Raphael’s wish for calm “Homeric” art opposed the disillusions of 19th century people, to whom Enlightenment had explained the virtues and limits of human rationality. Capitalist ideology had showed a vague uncertain contradictory concept of humanity to 19th century people. Absolute calmness, naturally owned by Raphael, was hardly looked for by Ingres within the art of the past.


Therefore, Classical golden Rules became less and less important. Ingres also felt free of deforming, exaggerating, and convey his truth. His sincerity toward nature put an end to his theory about “ideal beauty” because he painted and loved all aspects of reality. According to Ingres, beauty was omnipresent. David’s Neoclassicism could not be completely emulated by manifold artists, such as Ingres.


Although Ingres was just an apprentice of David, his internship nonetheless cast his soul. Moreover, this internship has never limited the elaboration of Ingres’ viewpoint. Achieving a univocal viewpoint was a very important issue to Ingres, aware of his contradictions. At private exhibitions, he laughed at them and deluded viewers’ expectations about uniqueness and homogeneity.


Ingres did so by displaying contrasting works of art close to each other, such as The Source and Madame Moitessier. The simplicity of the former contrasts with the colourful garment of the woman portrayed in the latter. Bright colours contrast with the Golden Rules Ingres himself obeyed. Introducing such a union to his viewers, he seemed to escape himself. However, he introduced artistic creation as freedom.


Artistic creation has always made artists free to use several styles and topics together. Actually, Ingres’ arbitrariness was just apparent. The sinuous serpentine figure, whose design opposes regularity and proportions, had already been thought about by Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo in the 16th century. The serpentine line had also been seen as a new standard rule.


Mannerists were the first artists to rebel against traditional rules and create new ones. Artistic creation became a new ideal, and Ingres fully identified with it. He was less interested in his topics than his fellows and Raphael. Ingres himself argues that topics are transitory. He has always been indifferent toward transitory. According to him, art was the only universal eternal value.


Talking about Ingres, Argan argues that “the aims of works of art are neither cognitive, nor moral. Neither countries, nor the Church, nor revolutions, nor reactions need them. Instead, art contains its own rules and intellectual reasons. As a matter of fact, it reveals the meanings of forms as such, not explications of topics”. Works of art do not depend on aesthetic given ideals. Actually, art creates aesthetics.


According to Argan, the beauty Ingres looked for is realized in the synthesis of elements. As a matter of fact, he looked for beauty within wholeness. Ingres opposed the accurate analysis of details he liked. Doing so, he argued that “details are presumptuous ‘babies,’ which must be quiet”. The following words were said by Ingres, too. “Examine wholeness! Forms must always be large! Forms are the bases and conditions of everything!”. These citations confirm what Argan thinks.


Raphael’s teachings were not forgotten by Ingres. He masterfully coordinated his composition elements depending on the triangulations in Raphael’s artwork. Although Raphael’s art was Ingres’ main Renaissance inspiration, Ingres’ extreme accuracy was nonetheless inspired by Bronzino’s painting. According to Camesasca, Ingres was inspired by Bronzino’s art when he painted his nudes as “absolutely perfect objects”. Although Ingres was inspired by many artists’ artworks, he has always remained true to himself.


During his long life, Ingres defended Classical traditions. He accepted all of the suggestions he received. However, his art revealed “heresies.” When Ingres’ art was defined, he started to be recognized as a great artist. As such, he was capable of synthesizing all real elements in order to create beauty.


Both Ingres’ emulations of Raphael and lack of genius are currently secondary issues, which manifest the viewpoints of surly denigrators. They tried to place Ingres in an artistic movement. Nevertheless, their research failed because Ingres was a sui generis painter. In conclusion, Classicism was just Ingres’ starting point. “Doing” art was instead his main capability.





Agnes Mongan, Ingres and the Antique,  “Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes”, 10 (1947), pp. 1-13.

Ettore Camesasca, L’Opera Completa di Ingres, Rizzoli, Milano 1968, pp. 6, 10-11, 13, 86-87.

Erwin Panofsky, IDEA: Contributo alla Storia dell’Estetica, Bollati Borlinghieri, Torino 2006, pp. 46-47.

Giulio Carlo Argan, L’Arte Moderna: 1770- 1970, Sansoni, Firenze 1990, p. 48.

Elena Pontiggia, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Pensieri sull’Arte, Abscondita, Milano 2003, p. 38.




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