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

Madame Moitessier

Oil on canvas, 120 x 92 cm
National Gallery, London

It is often said that while Delacroix was the great proponent of French Romanticism, his older contemporary Ingres was the champion of the classical tradition: obsessed with Raphael and antiquity, upholder of 'drawing' versus 'colour'. Real life being less tidy, however, we find that Delacroix was a more calculating artist than the hyper-emotional Ingres, who did not hesitate to break academic rules for expressive ends. Both painted subjects from literature and history, and his response to the female nude is as charged with erotic longing and scarcely sublimated violence as Delacroix's. Nor did Ingres invariably emulate Raphael and Poussin. Throughout his long career he tried to match style to subject, looking in turn to Greek vase painting, to the Early Renaissance, even to the Dutch seventeenth-century painters of everyday life.

It is, however, true that drawing was of primary importance to him. Forced to support himself and his wife in Rome in 1814 by drawing the English tourists who flocked back to the city liberated from French rule, he developed a wonderfully spare, yet lively and descriptive line. Although he despised portraiture as a lower form of art, like his teacher David Ingres came to excel in it. Few of his painted portraits are more sumptuous than Madame Moitessier, begun in 1847 but completed only in 1856 when the artist, as he tells us in his signature, was 76.

He had originally refused to paint this wealthy banker's wife, but when he met her he was so captivated by her beauty that he agreed, asking her to bring her small daughter, 'la charmante Catherine', whose head is visible under her mother's arm in a preparatory drawing in the Ingres Museum in Montauban. The doubtless bored and wriggling child was soon banished as Ingres wrestled with the picture, requiring long hours of immobility from his model. The sitter's dress was changed more than once. Ingres is recorded as still working on the portrait in 1847. The death of his wife in 1849 left him in despair and unable to paint for many months. In 1851 he began sittings anew and completed a standing likeness of Inès Moitessier in black (now in Washington). He returned to the seated version in 1852.

When he had finished four years later the sitter was 35. Ageless like a goddess with her Grecian profile impossibly reflected in a mirror parallel to the back of her head but dressed with Second Empire opulence in flowered chintz, Madame Moitessier exemplifies the ambiguities of Ingres's art. The firm contour of her shoulders, arms and face defines flesh perfectly rounded - though barely modelled - and as poreless, smooth and luminous as polished alabaster, yet paradoxically soft to the touch. In contrast to the resiliently buxom horsehair settee, it arouses fantasies and fears of bruising. The pose, with head resting against the right forefinger, derives from an ancient wall painting and signifies as Ingres must have known matronly modesty. But 'classicising' devices are offset by the minutely realistic transcription of the surfaces of fabrics, the fashionable parure of jewels, ormolu frames, Oriental porcelain. The mixture of the general with the particular, timeless grandeur with bourgeois ostentation, languor with pictorial rigour, is unique to Ingres and far from bloodlessly Neo-classical.