INGRES, Jean-Auguste-Dominique
(b. 1780, Montauban, d. 1867, Paris)

The Dream of Ossian

Oil on canvas, 348 x 275 cm
Musée Ingres, Montauban

Ossian purports to be a translation of an epic cycle of Scottish poems from the early dark ages. Ossian, a blind bard, sings of the life and battles of Fingal, a Scotch warrior. Ossian caused a sensation when it was published on the cusp of the era of revolutions, and had a massive cultural impact during the 18th and 19th centuries. Napoleon carried a copy into battle; Goethe translated parts of it; the city of Selma, Alabama was named after the home of Fingal, and one of Ingres' most romantic and moody paintings, the Dream of Ossian was based on it. The originator of the "unearthed, old Irish fragments" Fingal and Temora, published in 1762 and 1763, was a Scot, James Macpherson (1736-1796). Ten years after Macpherson's death it was discovered that the poems were forgeries, written by Macpherson himself from fragments of sagas.

In 1812 Ingres was commissioned to paint the subject of Ossian for the ceiling of one of the rooms used by Napoleon in the Quirinal Palace in Rome. Three years after Napoleon left, the Pope gave the painting back to the artist, understandably, for the heathen visions were hardly suitable for the Catholic ambience.

Ingres handled the theme with monumental simplicity. The dream figures are like transparent alabaster sculptures, they look exhausted, lying almost lifeless, as if they themselves are dreaming the dream. The work has a timeless, dreamlike quality.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 4 minutes):
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: The Hebrides Overture ('Fingals Cave')