He Meant to Do That

J.A.D. Ingres, "The Comtesse d'Haussonville" (Frick Collection, New York)

“No one ever drew and painted nude women better — from the neck down.”  That is art historian Paul Johnson’s assessment of 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Johnson is right:  The bodies are exquisite, but the facial expressions of Ingres’s nudes don’t convey amorous intent, or surprise that someone has found them undressed, or even “Wow, it’s cold in here!”  The paintings I’ve seen give the impression that his models were looking forward to quittin’ time.

It’s not that Ingres was incapable of painting good faces; in fact, he is famous for his portraits.  You should see some of the marvelous paintings he did of people with their clothes on.  Let me mention in passing that his name is pronounced “ANG”, with just a hint of “ruh” following; in French, the res isn’t a full-on syllable, it’s almost silent.

Anyway, his talent is so obvious, you might wonder why the faces of the nudes seem so vacant.  Well, here’s one answer:  he meant to do that.  Ingres’s idol was the Renaissance giant Raphael, and what the two painters shared was an appreciation of the classical traditions of Greece and Rome.  In fact, Ingres’s paintings suggest ancient sculpture, with very graceful lines, very smooth surfaces — and faces that often aren’t particularly expressive.

Unlike his archrival Eugène Delacroix, Ingres did many preparatory sketches before committing paint to canvas.  Delacroix plunged right in with his brushes, but Ingres was a draftsman first.  Then he paid so much attention to detail that when you study an Ingres painting up close, you notice that there are no visible brushstrokes.  His paintings are brought to a high finish:  Nothing is left raw, there are no jagged edges.

An Ingres painting I’ve admired many times is part of the Frick Collection in New York.  It’s a portrait of a young woman called the Comtesse d’Haussonville; Ingres painted her in 1845.

There are several things about the painting that are impressive, and one of them is the texture of the fabrics.  The ribbon in her hair appears to be silk, her gown is blue satin, and there is delicate lace on her sleeve.  Even as you lean in for a closer look, you’d swear it’s the real thing.  Painting that perfect is why museums have to hire guards to enforce the “don’t touch” rule.

Another thing you notice immediately about the Comtesse is the delicate hand under her chin, as though she is studying you as you study her.  Light glints off her jewelry… and it’s while you’re looking at those adornments on her right arm that you notice one more striking thing about this painting.

Take a careful look at the position of her arm.  It looks like her right shoulder must be somewhere in the middle of her rib cage, doesn’t it?  It’s not as revolutionary as the work of later artists like Picasso who painted subjects with (for instance) multiple noses, but the Comtesse is not anatomically correct.

Why Ingres chose to paint her that way is the subject of some conjecture, and you’re welcome to your own opinion.  All I know is that Ingres was an extravagantly gifted artist, and since that’s how he painted the Comtesse, he meant to do that.  I also suspect that by now, her shoulder must be killing her.

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