Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) is generally regarded as one of the great realist portrait painters of all time, and his greatness is confirmed by Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, a collection of more than 150 works showing at the National Gallery in Washington through August 22 and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York from October 5 to January 2.

This magnificent exhibition also underscores two historical ironies. For years, especially during his first long stay in Italy (from 1806 to 1820 in Rome and from 1820 to 1824 in Florence), Ingres made his living chiefly through portraits: lavish oils of the rich and politically powerful, and fastidious graphite drawings of importunate travelers, friends, and acquaintances (Liszt, Paganini, the composer Gounod). He lavished extraordinary care on these works, particularly the oils. "For the last nine days," the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville wrote about her famous 1845 portrait, "Ingres has been painting on one of the hands." Note the "on": nine days not for the hand, but for part of the hand.

Today these pictures, along with his nudes, are Ingres's most cherished work. Nevertheless, following the fashion of his time, Ingres tended to deprecate his portraits in relation to his history paintings and religious allegories. Portraits, he wrote in 1826, were "a considerable waste of time." Like John Singer Sargent -- "No more mugs!" Sargent exclaimed at one point -- Ingres bristled at the thought that he might be considered a mere tracer of likenesses.

But in the case of Ingres, there was nothing "mere" about it. In his best pictures, Ingres's astonishing ability to reproduce what he saw transformed while it portrayed. It is easy to be bowled over by the super-realistic aura of Ingres's portraits. He carefully effaced reminders of the painter's presence in the canvas. He described the practice of allowing brushstrokes to remain visible on the canvas as "an abuse in execution. . . . In place of the object represented, it shows the procedure."

But this new exhibition of portraits reminds us, in its second irony, how artificial the aura of realism can be. Ingres produced paintings that combine inexhaustible attention to detail with breath-taking departures from anatomical accuracy. It is a measure of his skill that we remember the focusing details but submerge the departures in a recollection of richness.

The overall effect is what we might call an aroma of visual exactness. In this sense, Ingres's feat was less to create the illusion of verisimilitude than to deploy the pictorial rhetoric of realism to create the illusion of the illusion of verisimilitude. Ingres achieved the effect of reality by skillfully -- if, as I believe, inadvertently -- violating the canons of realism.

There is no doubt that Ingres was an artistic prodigy. His earliest known drawing, a copy of a cast of an antique head, is signed "My first drawing, Ingres, 1789." Is it possible that this deft, expertly modeled likeness was dashed off by a nine-year-old? Ingres specialized in such moderately boastful signatures. Which is the more remarkable: that dazzling debut or the supremely confident self-portrait painted in 1858 and proudly inscribed "Painted by himself, age seventy-eight"? (The self-portrait he painted a few years later, in 1865, is even more remarkable.)

Ingres, the oldest of seven children, was singled out early on by his father, Jean-Marie-Joseph -- an artist of modest accomplishment in Montauban in the south of France -- for special treatment on account of his talent. (An affectionate portrait of Ingres pere is included in the exhibition and reveals a noticeable family resemblance, though Joseph displays a softer, less determined, less craggy countenance than his famous son.)

From 1791 to 1797, Ingres studied painting in Toulouse (where his father had gone to teach). He also studied the violin, and soon became proficient enough to perform with the Toulouse orchestra. In August 1796, he moved to Paris to study with the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Already Ingres's eccentricity was competing with his passion for visual fidelity. David encouraged his young student, but noted that he displayed "a tendency toward exaggeration in his studies." As Ingres developed, this tendency settled into a habit. "Exaggeration," the critic Charles Blanc observed, "was the distinctive trait of his character and mind."

By the time Charles Baudelaire began writing about Ingres -- first in the 1840s, then at length when there was a retrospective of Ingres's work at the Exposition Universelle in 1855 -- he noted that "strangeness is not among the least charms of his genius." Baudelaire even spoke of a certain "freakishness" in Ingres's art, dilating particularly, as many critics have done, on Ingres's anatomical distortions: an "egregious leg," "a navel which has strayed in the direction of the ribs, or a breast which points too much towards the armpit."

What is remarkable is that Ingres's reputation as a realist should survive, indeed thrive upon, such manifold distortions. No woman shaped like Ingres's famously elongated Odalisques (a chiropractor's nightmare) would be accounted beautiful in life; yet those paintings have emerged as archetypes of feminine sensuousness on canvas.

Ingres longed to dispense with the "neo" in neoclassical. Although he absorbed a great deal from his teacher, his ideal was not the didactic heroism preached by David, but the more supple variety exemplified by Raphael. A comparison of a truly bizarre picture like Ingres's Jupiter and Thetis (1811) with something like Raphael's School of Athens (1511) suggests the distance he would have had to traverse to attain his ideal.

It is not surprising that Ingres hankered after classicism with an intensity that can justly be called Romantic. Ingres called his great antipode Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) an "apostle of ugliness," and the younger painter harbored similar feelings about Ingres. But just as Delacroix turned out to have been far more classical in his sensibility than his detractors would admit or his less critical admirers acknowledge, so Ingres turned out to be far more subjective and given to idealization than his profession of naturalism seemed to allow. As Walter Pach observed in his sensitive 1939 book on Ingres, Delacroix's painting, with all its flame and smoke, soon makes us aware that it is informed with classical measure and balance; and in the same way, that which seemed at first the antique limpidity of Ingres reveals . . . a new and truer character. It becomes a thing of unsuspected depths, and so partakes of that adventure . . . which we call Romantic.

Still, few things irritated Ingres more than the charge -- or, as it often happened, the commendation -- that he "idealized" his sitters. "I copied him in the most servile way," Ingres exclaimed in exasperation when a friend innocently admired the way he had "embellished" a model. "I don't idealize."

If idealization requires intention, perhaps not. Yet anyone familiar with Ingres's art can well understand why Baudelaire should casually assure his readers that Ingres "holds that nature ought to be corrected and improved." For Ingres, the passion for fidelity required such corrections and improvements -- which, being undertaken in the name of nature, had to be accounted revelations. "Let us seek to please," Ingres said, "so that we may better impose the true. It is not with vinegar that one catches flies, it is with honey and sugar." Doubtless it would be impertinent to remark on the fact that flies come into the equation at all.

Ingres's prodigious talent assured an early triumph. In 1800, he shared second place in the Prix de Rome competition; in 1801, he won it (though his trip to Italy was postponed until 1806 because of the parlous state of the French government's finances). Nevertheless, Ingres's Salon entries began attracting as much opprobrium as adulation. As he departed further and further from the strictures of Davidian neoclassicism -- with its prescribed palette and conventions of modeling and shading figures -- he found himself increasingly out of critical favor. The criticism grew so hostile that Ingres eventually swore he would never participate in another Salon, a vow he kept until 1855.

Ingres's first serious setback came in 1806, shortly after he had arrived in Rome. Among the paintings he sent to the Salon that year was Madame Philibert Riviere. It is a splendid work, simultaneously luscious and taut. Yet one can understand why critics, brought up on David, would castigate it as "primitive" and "Gothic." It represents the very antithesis of Davidian drama and idealized historical reenactment.

The exhibition catalogue describes the sumptuously clad Madame Riviere as "frozen in time": "like a butterfly pressed under glass, she remains immobile in her airless shallow space." Ingres presents the elegant society lady in iconic, enameled stasis. He has arranged the image in an exquisitely balanced arcing diagonal within the oval canvas, but only at the cost of elongating Madame Riviere's right arm fantastically (indeed, her right hand could belong to someone else). The opulent cashmere shawl is painted with dazzling authority, yet its every fold seems arrested: not so much flowing as having flowed. In this painting, the third dimension, the dimension that action and history require, is distilled to a mirror image of itself. What it offers is delectation, not edification: a pleasure, not a moral.

It is not at all clear that Ingres would have approved of this. He believed that his passion for beauty was continuous with his "classicism," advocacy of nature with his insistence on truth. In many of his best pictures, however -- and especially his pictures featuring women -- Ingres achieves his most striking effects by disjunction. He embeds souvenirs of reality in a context stripped of contingency. His anatomical distortions and selective use of shadow and modeling compress the space in his pictures by several atmospheres. Even his famous use of mirrors to reflect the neck and back of his subjects -- in the portrait of the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, for example, the luxurious portrait of Madame de Senonnes (1814), or the late tour de force Madame Moitessier Seated (1856) -- has a tendency to push the picture in on itself. It is in this sense that Ingres may be said to "idealize" his subjects. He does not flatter them (as, say, Sargent flattered his sitters); he exempts them from change.

The German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, in his classic 1908 monograph Abstraction and Empathy, conjectured that the "urge to abstraction" in art was tied to "the possibility of taking the individual thing of the external world out of its arbitrariness and seeming fortuitousness, of eternalizing it by approximation to abstract forms and, in this manner, of finding a point of tranquillity and a refuge from appearances."

For the visual artist, Worringer wrote, this refuge was to be sought above all in the "strict suppression of the representation of space." It would be absurd to call Ingres an abstract artist. But cutting across his extravagant realism is a bold spatial astringency. The anatomical grotesquerie that cohabits with Ingres's realism is one effect of that compression of space. The iconic, static quality that many of his pictures possess -- and that distinguishes them so thoroughly from Delacroix's paintings -- is another. If, as the catalogue noted, Madame Riviere appears "frozen in time," the same could be said of many of Ingres's figures -- though "frozen out of time" might be a better way of putting it.

This impulse to stasis and compression is not present in all of Ingres's art, or even in all of his best. It is absent, for example, from the beautiful if somewhat sketchy 1814 portrait of his beloved first wife, to whom he proposed by letter at the suggestion of friends before ever having laid eyes on her and with whom he lived in great happiness until her death from blood poisoning in 1849. And it is equally absent from one of Ingres's greatest masterpieces, his 1832 portrait of the newspaper magnate Louis-Francois Bertin. Idealization was undone by affection and intimacy in the first case, perhaps by visceral respect in the second (not for nothing did Manet refer to Ingres's picture of Bertin as "the Buddha of the bourgeoisie").

But the allergy to unfettered space that one senses in much of Ingres's art is one of the things that makes him as much a proto-modernist as an arch-academician. It is also one of the things that made him such a supple resource for later artists from Puvis de Chavannes and Degas to Seurat and Picasso, all of whom recorded their debt to Ingres in their work even when they neglected to mention it aloud.

In his famous epigram "Le dessin c'est la probite de l'art" -- "Drawing is the integrity of art" -- Ingres did not mean by "drawing" simply reproducing contours. "Drawing," he insisted, "is also expression, the inner form, the plane, modeling. See what remains after that."

It might be said that Delacroix showed what remained: Shimmering color and an electric sense of movement, for starters.

But Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. Among other things, it reminds us that character reveals itself not only in action but also in the beckoning tranquility that blossoms where action ends and what Ingres calls "the inner form" of the subject appears in gorgeous if arrested purity.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of THE NEW CRITERION.

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