Ingres was born on Aug. 29, 1780, in Montauban, where his father, Joseph, was a sculptor of ornamental work. In 1791 Ingres entered the Toulouse Academy and studied history and landscape painting as well as sculpture. In 1797 he moved to Paris to study with David; 2 years later Ingres entered the École des Beaux-Arts. These decisions signaled Ingres’s allegiance to both the prevailing public style of his day and the great tradition of classical Renaissance painting in general.
Like nearly every serious artist at the École des Beaux-Arts, Ingres wished to study in Rome, the locus of classical antiquity to which the École philosophically aspired. The opportunity arrived in 1801, when he won the coveted Prix de Rome with the Envoys from Agamemnon. Because of political conditions, however, the stipend for the Prix de Rome did not become available until 1806, and it was not until the end of that year that Ingres finally reached the Eternal City. He spent the next 4 years at the French Academy in Rome. In the words of Walter Friedlaender, “Ingres belonged there—he was a ‘southerner,’ like Poussin or Claude,” the two French masters who had preceded him there more than a century before and had stayed throughout most of their careers.
Between 1806 and 1820 Ingres produced some of his best-known and most original paintings, including the Bather of Valpinçon (1808), Jupiter and Thetis (1811), and the Grande odalisque (1814). Curiously, the pictures were negatively received when they were shown in the important annual Salon exhibitions in Paris. The criticisms suggested that Ingres’s paintings were “Gothic” and “primitive.” Although the works show a strong resemblance to Davidian classicism, particularly in their idealized figures, tight sculptural drawing, localized color, painstaking illusionism, and suppression of painterly surface incident, they also seem anticlassical, even romantic. The nudes exhibit a languorous sensuality, an exoticism of setting and mood that is foreign to the neoclassic dicta of clarity and reason.
Moreover, Ingres’s figures are frequently characterized by peculiar distortions: torsos are flattened, elongated, and compressed, while arms and legs attach to bodies in ways that are anatomically fantastic—for instance, in the monstrous proportions of the Grande odalisqueand in the physical impossibility of her left leg in relation to her hip. But these distortions also mark Ingres’s complicated relation to Renaissance illusionism and modern abstraction. That is, the images are presented in graphic fashion, as if seen through a window, but they can never be fully explained in this way. Rather, the “distortions” result from what Ingres felt were the demands of the picture surface. When those demands clashed with the demands of visible reality, the latter were forced to yield. To the extent that Ingres’s paintings reveal this yielding of illusionism, and this is always a question of degree, his works suggest a gradual breakdown in the Renaissance values he personally revered.
After working in Rome for 14 years, Ingres moved to Florence, a decision that was influenced by Lorenzo Bartolini, a sculptor friend he had met in 1799 in David’s studio. Ingres remained in Florence for 4 years. During this period, as well as during the years in Rome—years in which his most ambitious paintings continued to be unsympathetically received in the Parisian Salons—the artist produced numerous portrait paintings and drawings. In this way he supported himself and his wife, Madeleine Chapelle, whom he had married in 1813.
Ingres’s portraits are extraordinary examples of the way a graphic language can be made to reveal the presence and uniqueness of the human personality. Superficially they appear cool and aloof, almost repetitious in their taut verisimilitude. But this is not the case. In each portrait Ingres’s drawing breathes, expanding and contracting to meet the demands of the personality confronting him. At one moment his line flows quietly, merely suggesting a form; in the next it becomes an agitated arabesque, dramatically enriching an element of body or clothing and serving as a metaphor for human feeling. Moreover, each portrait establishes a unique relationship between sitter and viewer: in some, the linear elements cascade down toward the viewer, inviting access to the sitter’s world; in others, severe verticals or horizontals keep the beholder at a distance. Some of his most celebrated portraits are Madame Rivière (1805), Countess of Touron (1812), Monsieur Bertin (1832), and Madame d’Haussonville (1840s).
While he was living in Florence, Ingres completed the Vow of Louis XIII (1824) for the Cathedral of his native town of Montauban. He sent it to the Salon of 1824 and, for the first time in almost 2 decades, returned to Paris for the annual exhibition. The painting was an enormous success: the artist received the Cross of the Legion of Honor from Charles X and, just a few months later, was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. By the end of 1824 he had opened a Paris studio and had begun to take students. The Vow of Louis XIII thus marked a turning point in Ingres’s career.
To some historians the huge success of the work has seemed peculiar, largely because it does not appear to be one of the master’s most original creations or to mark any decisive stylistic break with works that had been negatively received at earlier Salons. According to Friedlaender, Ingres’s situation at this point must be seen in relation to Eugène Delacroix, the leading exponent of the revolutionary style of romanticism. As he says, “Perhaps it was because in this same Salon of 1824 Delacroix exhibited his Massacre of Chios and, needing an upholder of tradition to oppose this revolutionary innovator, the public was happy to find an artist who brought to the conservative point of view such great technical skill and such an irreproachably worthy style.”
There is much evidence to substantiate Friedlaender’s claim. During their own lifetimes Ingres and Delacroix were viewed (and to some extent viewed themselves) as the leaders of classicism and romanticism and as fierce rivals. That there are many relationships between their respective oeuvres—each combining classicism and romanticism— has become apparent only recently. New studies have thus replaced the simplistic view that the works of the two masters are in clearly opposite camps.
The public success initiated by the Vow of Louis XIII continued for Ingres through the next 4 decades. In 1826 the director of the museums of France commissioned him to paint the Apotheosis of Homer as a ceiling mural in the Charles X Museum at the Louvre; it was completed the following year. This ambitious composition, which Ingres executed as an easel picture, shows an ideal gathering of the most famous exemplars of classical thought and art, of the history to which Ingres personally aligned himself. In 1829 Ingres was made a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1832 he became vice president of the École, and in 1833 he became its president for one year. He resigned his professorship in 1851.
Throughout these years Ingres’s personal life included very few dramatic events. In 1834 he returned to Rome, where he succeeded Horace Vernet as director of the French Academy. In 1841 Ingres went back to Paris and continued to teach—his fame now brought him a legion of followers—and to produce numerous portraits, including the sensational Madame d’Haussonville. His wife died in 1849; he married Delphine Ramel in 1851. Perhaps the most singular event in Ingres’s long and tireless career came in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The master was honored with a separate exhibition of his work, a forerunner of the one-man retrospective exhibitions so common today. Yet, even this triumph was tinged with irony because Ingres’s archrival, Delacroix, was similarly honored.
Ingres died on Jan. 14, 1867, working indefatigably to the end. One of his last great paintings is the Turkish Bath (1862-1863). The exotic subject matter, the specific motif of the bather in the foreground whose back is turned to the viewer, and the compellingly abstract, no illusionistic treatment of the spaces and figures recall works that Ingres had completed almost half a century earlier (for example, the Bather of Valpinçon). By themselves these likenesses reveal the remarkable persistence with which Ingres adhered to his personal interpretation of the classical tradition. Even more remarkable, however, is the painting’s inherent quality: at the age of 80, Ingres could still draw the human figure with a sensitivity that has few parallels in the entire history of art.
In many ways Ingres was the last member of the neoclassic tradition. By the 1860s the new art of Gustave Courbet, Manet, and the impressionists had already begun to revolutionize the Paris art world, and the Beaux-Arts tradition was becoming sterile and academic. So Ingres had few immediate followers who are remembered today. Nevertheless, the quality and spirit of his work provided an undeniable foundation for the modern art of Manet, Edgar Degas, and other masters of the younger generation.