Ingres’s Madame Moitessier | Talks for All | National Gallery

Ingres’s Madame Moitessier | Talks for All | National Gallery


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Christopher Riopelle. I am the Curator of Post-1800 Paintings here at the National Gallery, and I want to talk to you today particularly about this painting, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s ‘Portrait of Madame Moitessier’. Now, one of the questions, my fellow
curators will certainly agree with me, one of the questions that we are
most frequently asked about paintings is: ‘How long did it take to paint it?’ And, in fact, it’s a very good question,
because when you know the answer you begin to be able to figure out
a number of things about the artist;
about his or her sensibility, about their technique, because, obviously,
very close and detailed painting takes a good deal longer than more fluid and expressive painting. You can tell if they’re working
with assistants, things like that. And the amount of time
it takes to paint a picture can range from half an hour, if you go downstairs
in the Ground Floor Gallery that we devote
to the landscape oil sketch, we know that many of them
would have been done in about half an hour because at the Academy
you were taught to do them that quickly because they were not finished pictures, you were simply capturing
an effective light, a motif in nature that you might be able
to use again sometime later. Because it wasn’t finished, because light atmosphere changes
every half hour, the whole point was to work
as quickly as possible. So, the amount of time can range
from a half hour down up to weeks, up to months. It would be the rare painting
by the rare artist that would take a year. That would be a long time. The other factor involved is how many paintings is the artist
working on simultaneously. That too can affect it. So, from half an hour to a year. And then there’s ‘Madame Moitessier’, 12 years… to execute this painting, and part of the fascination of the work is, indeed, the struggle
that it took for him to bring this extraordinarily
complicated work to completion. Now, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,
born in Montauban in 1780, Montauban, the South of France, the son of a minor painter, his talent recognised
by his father quite early, he’s sent to good teachers, and finally he is sent…
in the years of the revolution, he is sent to Paris, where he becomes a student of the greatest of all French artists
at that moment, Jacques-Louis David. And we see here, from about the time that Ingres is entering David’s studio, a glorious example of David’s portraiture. It is his ‘Portrait of Jacobus Blauw’
of 1795. Jacobus Blauw is the Batavian Ambassador to the revolutionary government in France. Batavia is Holland, basically, now declared itself a republic, in deep sympathy
with the French Revolution, and Jacobus Blauw there
to support the French Revolution, but also to ensure good relationships between Holland, Batavia,
and the French Republic. And you see the mastery of David. If you think of the tradition
of aristocratic portraiture that we see in this building
by say Rubens, Van Dyck, it’s usually aristocrats at their leisure
in very fancy clothes, standing there, not a care in the world, their insouciance is part
of the subject of the painting. Well, in the French Revolution,
things are moving very quickly, history is being made on a daily basis. There would be no place for portraiture
of gentlemen at their ease, and so what, extraordinarily
and so wonderfully, David does is really to invent
a new kind of portraiture, showing men, for the most part, at work. And that exactly is what’s going on here. We have interrupted Blauw
as he is writing, as he is working, say,
on a petition to the government, on a declaration of friendship
between France and Holland. He is not indifferent to us, but he has other things on his mind. It is, you might say, a thinking portrait, a man of action
caught at his desk at work. Indeed, a few years later,
when Napoleon came to power, David would paint him
surrounded by the books of French law as he prepared the Napoleonic Code, the great new legal system of France
based on the Enlightenment. And there’s a clock beside his desk, and the clock shows that Napoleon is
at work at three o’clock in the morning, as if to say Napoleon
only works for France and all of his time is devoted to France. So, it is in this context, in this training, in images like this, that the young Ingres reaches
his maturity as an artist. David considers him, arguably,
one of his very greatest students, but also, certainly, his most difficult. He says a few years later,
‘The man is mad. I have no idea what he’s what he’s up to’, when he begins to move off
in his own direction. But it is coming out
of this hothouse of David, in the midst of the Revolution, that Ingres comes of age. In 1801, he wins the Prix de Rome, this prize that will send him to Rome
to study art for three years. He is unable to go.
It is turmoil, war, et cetera. The money from the government
is not available for him to go, so he lingers in Paris until 1806, when he goes down to begin what will be 18 years, not three, but 18, by the end of it, years
of study and very hard work in Rome, in Italy, first Rome and then in Florence. And we have one of the great portraits that Ingres executed
during that period in Rome. It is the portrait
of ‘Monsieur de Norvins’. Monsieur de Norvins
was the Chief of Police in Rome during the Napoleonic occupation,
during the French occupation of the city. He is the model for Scarpia
in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’, the police chief there, and Stendhal said of him
‘a thoroughly wicked man’. But, in this elegant portrait, you see Ingres portraying him
as an official, even adopting Napoleon’s signature gesture of the hand into the waistcoat. As soon as Napoleon began to fall,
he would flee Rome as quickly as he could, living up to Stendhal’s
description of him. During these years in Italy, Ingres is forced to make a living by painting and making drawn portraits of the French in Italy, of some Italians, and then, after the fall of Napoleon, by all of the grand tourists. Suddenly Europe is open again,
everyone can travel, tourists from across Europe pour down into Italy for the first time
in about 15-17 years, and they want a souvenir,
so they all go to Monsieur Ingres, who does these glorious portrait drawings,
for the most part, of these people. We know that they are the work
of one day. They are astonishingly detailed, but you went in the morning,
you sat for a couple of hours, and you came back the next day
to pay for and receive your drawing. So, this is a man perfectly capable
of working at speed. But he got very tired of this. He had higher ambitions than just being a portraitist. He wanted to paint
great historical pictures. He wanted to paint pictures
on the grand themes of antiquity, of history, as I say, history was unfolding
so rapidly in those years and he wanted to be the recording angel on the model of his teacher David. So, after he returned to France in 1824, and he returns in triumph, he sends a picture back to Paris in 1824, a big altarpiece which is received
with such excitement that he is suddenly the flavour of the week,
flavour of the month, everyone wants to know who this man
they haven’t seen since 1806 is. And, as I say, he returns in triumph, instantly one of the most
famous artists in Paris, comparable really only with his friend,
whom he admired and Delacroix admired him,
Eugène Delacroix, and you see a Delacroix portrait
on that wall. So, there they are in the middle of Paris, famous artists in the mid-1820s. And, of course, everybody comes to Ingres asking for his portrait to be painted. And he accepts a few commissions, but realises at the same time that if he doesn’t, sort of, draw a line, he is going to be pushed into this thing
and never get away from portraiture, never have the opportunity to paint
the big pictures he really wants to do, on which, at that point,
true glory resided. And so he starts to turn down
more and more commissions to work on big history paintings instead, and it is only in very rare circumstances that he accepts to do a portrait. One of those rare circumstances
comes in 1844 when this, through a circuitous route, and I will come to explain what happens, he is commissioned to paint
the portrait of this woman, who is Madame, and I can’t be expected
to remember all this, Madame Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, who is Marie-Clotilde-Inès de Foucauld, a grand French family, her father is a big figure
in the Ministry of State Domains, running the, sort of, property of France, and he has a very good friend
in the Ministry, a man named Charles Marcotte, who is also Ingres’s best friend. There is a lifelong correspondence
between the two of them. They always told everything
to one another, and so, cleverly, Monsieur de Foucauld realises that in order to get Ingres to accept
to paint his daughter’s portrait he should go through Marcotte, the friend, and Marcotte, the friend,
holds a dinner party, introduces them, lays the proposition before Ingres
of painting this woman. At first, he had said no, no, no, then he meets her and he declares that it is her beauty
that has won him over and yes, he will agree to… yes, he will agree to paint her. It is a very lucrative commission. Ingres is paid a lot of money, and he would be paid
a lot of money for this. But you see, I think, how he,
if we pick apart ‘I did it because of her beauty’ and the Marcotte connection,
you see what he’s doing, he’s making a lucrative
business transaction, but he’s saying,
‘I’m doing it for friendship and I’m doing it for
the sake of beauty.’ So, it distances himself
from a mere economic transaction and allows him to put himself
on a higher plane. He then does nothing for about a year, but in ’45 begins to work up drawings that will lead to this portrait, and he gets her pose almost immediately. And I show you this picture,
it is, I’m sorry you can’t see it well, it is an ancient Roman fresco excavated at Herculaneum showing Hercules and Omphale confronting one another, this great ancient Roman goddess, and you see she’s sitting there
with this wonderful gesture of her hand to her temple. Ingres himself had seen this Roman fresco
on his trips to Naples, and he would know that connoisseurs also would know this fresco. It was within the repertoire of images
that people would know. So, he borrows this right away,
right from the first drawing, he’s figured out
this absolutely basic thing, he’s going to present her
as a kind of Juno. She has recently had a young baby,
a daughter, the young Catherine, and the original conception is that
it is going to be a double portrait, mother and daughter, and the little girl is to be leaning
her head on her mother’s lap, very sweet, very lovely, I suppose like a Raphael
‘Madonna and Child’. He works on this for a while. He doesn’t advance very far. His wife,
his dearly beloved first wife dies, and he lays everything aside, he doesn’t
really paint anything for two years, and Moitessier and her husband
sort of allow that, they don’t put any pressure on him, and only slowly does he get back
at the end of the 50s to doing little things, but advancing, not really advancing
very far on this portrait at all, cancelling sittings, not really focusing on it
for whatever reason, until in 1851, and this reminds us,
as it reminded Ingres, that this was a business proposition, Monsieur Moitessier comes back
and is very angry and says, ‘We’re already seven years into this,
I want this portrait done.’ And Ingres does something
quite extraordinary. He puts this painting completely aside and instead of painting that he paints a second, completely different portrait
of Madame Moitessier, and I show you,
it’s even larger than this one. It’s a glorious thing, now in
the National Gallery of Art in Washington. She’s wearing a glorious black dress,
flowers in her hair, she’s about to go out to the opera. It is the same meticulous,
utterly fine handling of paint that you see in all of Ingres’s works and he completes this in eight months. So, again, he is perfectly capable of working at a reasonable,
at a rational pace, and I would defy you to find any,
as it were, difference in quality in the paint handling between this picture
and the picture in Washington. Several years ago, when we did our
great exhibition on Ingres’s portraits, we had them there,
the two of them side by side, and they are both glorious. And it was delivered, as I say,
within eight months. Monsieur Moitessier was very happy
with it, as well he might have been. The business side of the equation was over and so now he could go back
to working on this at his own pace, because his obligation had been fulfilled. So, he goes back,
he continues to work on the portrait. The little daughter of three is now much bigger. She’s not an infant
on her young mother’s lap. She’s sort of a middle-aged mother now. And the first of several
important decisions is made. Catherine is edited out of the picture. She was a little too old
to be leaning on her mother’s lap. She is simply removed. It will be Madame Moitessier alone. And then, as research in our conservation
labs revealed a few years ago, when it was to be mother and daughter,
to fit them both in, Madame Moitessier was further to the left to leave room for the daughter. At some point, probably about this time, that’s really the only explanation, when the daughter is edited out, the canvas is taken off its stretcher, moved over to the right, so that Madame is absolutely central, and it’s reattached and he carries on. He sends, they’ve moved
into a very glamorous house, new house, he sends his assistants to go and do drawings of the boiserie,
of the furniture in the room, so that he has things
in front of him to work with. He determines on this wonderful thing where her profile is seen
in the mirror behind her. He sends her notes, ‘When you come
for such and such a sitting, wear the emeralds, oh, I want
to see you in the emeralds today, and we’ll see if that works.’ So, it’s a kind of collaboration as they work through which jewels
she’s going to wear, that kind of thing. He begins to add
extraordinarily beautiful objects, such as this Japanese Imari vase
that you see to the left and a Persian,
maybe even a Mughal fan that is there showing her taste, showing the elegance of her home, showing her refinement that she had
such marvellous things. And, at a certain point, and it’s in none of the drawings
so it’s a free invention, the back of the settee
on which she is resting, he shows the carving of the back and he shows in carved wood a tiny little putto, a tiny little angel, who’s blowing a kiss to Madame Moitessier. It’s his, sort of,
private love letter to her. We are now up to 1855, 11 years since the commission
was first given, at which point Ingres makes
an extraordinary change of direction, yet another extraordinary
change of direction. Up until this point, through 11 years, Madame Moitessier has been wearing
a yellow silk dress, pure yellow. Underneath this, testing reveals,
we find the pure yellow paint. In 1855, there is a great
Universal Exposition in Paris. One of the highlights of the exhibition,
which has all of Paris talking, are one of the first sumptuous displays
of the Lyonnaise flowered silks, these flowered silks
being manufactured in Lyon, absolutely luxurious objects, luxurious pieces of cloth-making completely surrounded,
drenched in flowers, designed by people such as Antoine Berjon, and we have one of Berjon’s
flower paintings here. Lyon was the great school
of flower paintings and many of the flower painters
were also working in the silk industry, designing for them. I don’t say that this dress
comes from a Berjon design, but it’s in this milieu that these extraordinary pieces of cloth
were being woven and they were being turned
into sumptuous evening dress. The Empress Eugénie,
the wife of Napoleon the Third, took them up, began wearing them, began appearing at the opera, began appearing at balls in these dresses, and so Madame Moitessier,
ever-fashionable, had to do the same thing. So, at the very last moment… the yellow dress disappears and it is replaced by this sumptuous work of Lyonnaise silk, flower silk, which anyone in Paris in 1855-6 would recognise
as absolutely the latest chic, the latest statement
of high-Parisian fashion, and that is how he works through ’56, that is what in very early ’57, when it is first revealed to the world, she is wearing, but Ingres, for whom more
is always more… Ingres, at the very end, does one more thing to make this extraordinary portrait
more extraordinary still, which is he designs its frame. And you see the frame,
completely covered with flowers. It’s as if the flowers off the dress have spilled out into the frame itself. And so it becomes a total unity,
a total piece of art in which the frame is absolutely integral, a wonderful fantasy on the part of Ingres. The picture was acquired from France
by the National Gallery in 1946. It is our first great acquisition
after the War. The director was Kenneth Clark. Kenneth Clark was very worried that he was going to be thought frivolous
for buying such a painting, so he took off the frame and put a very chaste,
very elegant, simple frame on it that was on it for many, many years until sometime in the 60s someone spotted
this glorious frame in storage, realised what it was, and returned it to its rightful portrait, which we see on it now. So, I will stop there. Thank you.

20 thoughts on “Ingres’s Madame Moitessier | Talks for All | National Gallery

  1. a huge historical mistake, Delacroix and Ingres were enemies !! Ingres will prevent him, moreover, on several occasions, from being elected to the Institut de France, Delacroix wrote in his diaries about Ingres "this radical vice, this absence of heart, soul, and reason, which, according to him, characterizes his rival. Please, when you work for this great institution you should be more accurate…

  2. This is a really interesting talk. Chris Riopelle brings it to life with his excellent commentary.Thank you.

  3. A very decent talk, full of detail that true art lovers will enjoy and perhaps 'bring to mind' when viewing the piece in the future.
    Well done to the NG for presenting this work to the public!

  4. Again, what an extraordinarily clear example of the role geometry played on these painters' composition. Ingres puts a major diagonal going up to the carré (or square), guiding and organizing the entire painting. Curiously, he took inspiration from one of the best surviving greco-roman examples of such a use of geometry in composition, with a stark demonstration of cross diagonals and vertical in the middle.

    I am still hoping that a curator will come along and start tackling these subjects more pertaining to the actual craft of the painter than just their products' history.

    Nevertheless, another great talk.

  5. Bellissimo! Thank you to Chris Riopelle and the National Gallery for this most informative presentation!  The subject matter as presented was engrossing and thought provoking. Great nuggets of significant historical value I was previously unaware of were brought forth by Mr. Riopelle in a clear and understandable manner.  I look forward to additional uploads of the 'Talks for All Series' as they are the next best thing to actually being there. Bravo and encore, please!

  6. Monsieur Riopelle is a great speaker. Love that he went into great length about the background stories and the nature of Ingres (who knew that he was a procrastinator and he was "mad" according to David). He goes beyond to just what is on the canvas (which we all can see. So don't just point to the fact that she is wearing a flowery dress). Please have him on to do talks again.

  7. A decent talk but there were a few inconsistencies which I will point out below:
    – Giving the impression that most paintings were finished in less than a year is very misleading as there are a lot of exceptions. Every artist worked differently, every subject was different, often artists painted more than a few picture at a time etc.
    – Ingres and Delacroix were most definitely not friends – in fact the hostility and rivalry between them is very well documented in documents of the time, as well as Delacroix's journal. It is true however that from time to time they had admiration for one another's work.
    – And lastly Ingres's name was mispronounced during the whole talk. There's a specific French r that must be pronounced at the end which I never heard.

  8. Thank you very much for this interesting and informative presentation. I enjoy this lecture enormously!

  9. sadly, as per usualy, I live amidst folk who know more than nayone – particularly those… so I will leave you to it…

  10. I used to love JLDavid then I read of his involvement in the French revolution and that was it for me , its difficult to separate the person from his œuvre.

  11. Around 2004, I saw an Ingres show at the Louvre. It contained some of his early portraits of society ladies. I found them surprisingly amateurish looking. Now I guess I know why. The mature works were astonishing and sublime.

  12. Flawed or not, I found the speaker's fast summation of the process, with a dash of historical context, very enjoyable. I knew that Ingres had higher aims than mere portraiture. Yes, he was a brilliant draughtsman. I have also heard of the "violon d'Ingres" and of his preference for the company of the downstairs to the one upstairs. In short, a gifted, complex, and amusing character.

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