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The Portraits of the Most Romantic Realist

12:00 AM, Jun 28, 1999 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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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."