Art / essay

The Drawings of Ingres

La Grande Baigneuse, Oil on Canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 1808.

As most of us know, France, especially before the Franco-Prussian War, in its enthusiasm for Republicanism, adored the genre of Neo-Classicism. Fascinated by Roman antiquity, stoked by the Renaissance, and further excited by the discoveries in Pompeii and in Rome by the excavations of the Domus Aurea, among other things, artists chose to use images of the Republican virtues as exemplified by subjects and notable figures from antiquity. These pictures were not ones of confusion or enigma but clear statements representing reality (not to be confused with the genre referred to as Realism).

Bronze Statue of the Faun from Pompeii – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

The philosophy surrounding the creation of artworks of such exactitude includes the practice of creating drawings based upon a strong regime of draftsmanship and copying from nature. Ingres extensively produced preparatory drawings that many people find of great interest. Of course, this process is not a new invention of Ingres’. Even those not very familiar with knowledge of the drawings of da Vinci and the etchings of Rembrandt or drawings of other artists, realize the importance of preparing for the painted image. Those with a bit more knowledge might talk of the drawings of other Neo-Classical artists such as Jacques Louis David or the myriad of artists down through history who began a picture or sculpture with preparatory drawings.

However, our fascination is piqued by skills that appear so decisive and confident. Let me say from the outset that a drawing in charcoal, graphite, or silverpoint meant as preparation for a painting simply goes to what is comfortable, habitual, and/or part of the process. Painters such as Frans Hals have no record of drawing. Neither does Velazquez. It goes without saying that artists of the 20th century either blurred the line between drawing and painting or had not much use of preparatory drawings since they engaged in expressive or abstracted works.

One can not overstate the attitude of the artist to the drawing. In many instances, the artist perceives the drawing as an individual work and, therefore, requires a degree of finish such that objection to the display to others does not become a consideration. To others, it is simply a note, a thing scratched off in practice or preparation for the final work. I suspect those in history with little remaining of the body of their preparatory drawings may have fit this category and took less care in saving them for posterity. Some may have used other methods such as watercolor or oil sketches. Peter Paul Rubens engaged in oil sketches and studies, for example. As with many artists, Ingres leaves us a mixed bag. Some are refined drawings. Some are working studies without the sophistication of finished work.

Drawing is an enthralling subject. My contention insists that drawing, especially in black and white, is a skill more easily mastered than with other media. People seem to have greater control when using a device so intimately held in hand. The marks are made with more precision than with a brush. Yet a more complicated picture that includes several or many objects may betray the artist’s overall ability because of the effect of “not seeing the forest for the trees”. Nevertheless, depending on the total finish desired, it also requires preparation such as grids and lines in order to maintain correct proportions which, of course, is missing in the drawings of Ingres.

Self-Portrait, Graphite on Wove Paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 1822.

One can see from the above drawing the direct approach taken by Ingres. He doesn’t tarry on one particular place except that he is more careful to supply more time to important aspects of the image such as in drawing the face. All other features are cursorily completed. As a general rule, avoid worrying over extraneous details that are more delightfully imagined and fulfilled by the viewer.

Let’s look at what went into his Odalisque with Slave and La Grande Odalisque.

Double Study Drawn for the Odalisque à l’Esclave, circa 1839

When one thinks of the accusation that Ingres engaged a camera obscura to create his drawings, the presentation of these sorts of drawings is never displayed. One would hardly need such creations when using such a device.

Study for La Grande Odalisque, Graphite on Woven Paper, 1814.
Ingres after an unpublished correspondence. Studies for the portrait of Mme Récamier, executed by David, were based on the sketches of his student Ingres.

The Grand Odalisque, Oil on Canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris 1814.
Studies for Acron’s Victorious Romulus, 1812.

Notice in the above image we see the same groping for lines that commonly occur when an artist records from life.

Something of importance to mention here. When it comes to a realistic depiction of life, the largest portion of success comes from drafting the image. Once the drawing is accurately managed and placed properly on the surface, many other things rapidly fall into order. In this respect, the drawing’s perfection becomes of supreme importance.

Drawing of Four Horses, Attributed to Ingres.

The interesting thing about Ingres’ images comes from the expressive idealizations he resorts to producing a world, although with the look of fidelity to reality, gives way to personal visions of beauty. This is not much different from the sculptures we see in the Hellenistic period of western art or the Mannerists of the High Rennaisance.

Athena and Nike fight Alkyoneus, Gaia rises up from the ground. From the Altar of Pergamon, 2nd Half of the 2nd Century BC.

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time [Allegory of the Triumph of Venus], Oil on Panel, National Gallery, London, Bronzino c. 1545.

“Drawing was the foundation of Ingres’s art. In the Ecole des Beaux-Arts he excelled at figure drawing, winning the top prizes. During his years in Rome and Florence, he made hundreds of drawings of family, friends, and visitors, many of them of very high portrait quality. He never began a painting without first resolving the drawing, usually with a long series of drawings in which he refined the composition. In the case of his large history paintings, each figure in the painting was the subject of numerous sketches and studies as he tried different poses. He demanded that his students at the Academy and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts perfect their drawing before anything else…” A section from the entry for Ingres on Wikipedia.

Mme Victor Baltard and Her Daughter, Paule, Pencil on Paper, 1836.

I remember, once, creating an oil painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi” as a means of practice in terms of chiaroscuro and dramatic lighting, and aerial effects. One could easily do such a study by taking a refined Ingres drawing and converting it into a color portrait. In another article on Artemisia Gentileschi, I included a photograph of an oil work I had done of her “Judith and her Maid Servant”. Very good practice to copy the masters.

One other interesting thing in Ingres’ drawings is his addition of backgrounds. Obviously, these backgrounds were included to further “finish” the drawings and give them a richer context. This concept was advocated by a professor of mine in some figure drawing classes and had the effect of helping in the development of the forms.

Since drawings by Ingres are countless, I have included a video of a considerable number of them. Of course, I composed the classical guitar music but the video is rather straightforward, without titles or ending. If you need to obtain proper captions, unfortunately, you will have to occupy a good day obtaining them because of their numerous nature.

Drawings of Ingres

Self-Portrait 2010


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