Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 29th August 1780 – 14th January 1867) was a French Neoclassical painter. Although he considered himself to be a painter of history in the tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David, by the end of his life it was Ingres’ portraits, both painted and drawn, that were recognized as his greatest legacy.
“A man profoundly respectful of the past, he assumed the role of a guardian of academic orthodoxy against the ascendant Romantic style represented by his nemesis Eugène Delacroix. His exemplars, he once explained, were "the great masters which flourished in that century of glorious memory when Raphael set the eternal and incontestable bounds of the sublime in art ... “I am thus a conservator of good doctrine, and not an innovator.” Nevertheless, modern opinion has tended to regard Ingres and the other Neo-classicists of his era as embodying the Romantic spirit of his time, while his expressive distortions of form and space make him an important precursor of modern art.”
But I want to talk about the eroticism in Ingres’ painting. The way he painted women, reflecting the parts of the female body that were considered to be erotic according to contemporary style. Just as today’s female fashion seems to be a penchant for a generous mouth and full, bee-stung lips, the desired style in Ingres’ day, was for an ivory, translucent skin, rounded, gracefully formed limbs, an elegant neck, décolletage and a long back.
Although rare and little known during his time, his works are very famous today and include The Bather of Valpinçon, La Grande Odalisque and The Turkish Baths. They rank among the most daring and enigmatic paintings of the 19th century.
Whether naked or clothed, you can see from the way Ingres’ painted women, that his eyes lingered; he delighted in the female form.
I think that eroticism is enhanced by clothes, and while Ingres’ painted many, many nudes, the painting I want to look at first, is of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière.
Jonathan Jones writes in , the Guardian newspaper, 2nd August 2003;
“Mademoiselle Rivière was 15 when Ingres painted her. The portrait was shown at the Salon of 1806 along with his pictures of her parents and Napoleon. By the end of the year she was dead.
The sexuality Ingres usually reserved for harem fantasies slips, over into the real and respectable world in this charged portrait. His obviously intense visual relationship with his subject and his contentment to look, with a clinical waxy fetishism, at Mademoiselle Rivière's full lips, bared neck, long gloves and spectacularly serpentine boa, lend this picture drama.
The beauty of the painting is its sublimated stillness. Fragile like porcelain, with smoothed hair, Mademoiselle Rivière is incongruous against a rural backdrop. She is a clothed odalisque, an unreal being in the French countryside. She makes you think of Ingres’ paintings of Greek myths, in which you sense that a supernatural power is about to smash through the surface of his vision. Ingres’ paintings suggest overwhelming forces, inside and outside the artist. He is far greater and more ambitious than we recognise if we dwell solely on the "accuracy" of his portraits.
This image of femininity seizes a quality of youthful candour just on the brink of a womanhood that Mademoiselle Rivière, who died that very year, was never to know. The sunlit openness of the spring landscape, the simplicity and slight stiffness of the stance, the natural ruddiness of cheeks and lips, the dazzling whiteness of the dress and swan's-down boa (which offended those 1806 Salon critics accustomed to a darker, more shadowed palette)--such elements create a purity and innocence foreign to the atmosphere of cultivated artifice and sensuality in Ingres’ portraits of mature women. Appropriate to the age of the sitter, Mademoiselle Rivière’s sensuality is nascent rather than overripe. Indeed, the chiselled clarity of the head, centred beneath the arcing upper frame, smacks of something strangely archaic. The staring, almond-shaped eyes; the fixed smile; the stylised geometries of hairline, eyebrows, ear locks- all recall an early moment in an artistic cycle, whether Egyptian, archaic Greek, or Italian quattrocento.”
From the Louvre website
“Ingres set the erotic tone of 19th and 20th-century French art. In Rome in the late 1800s,he painted a nude for the king of Naples; in 1814 he did his Grande Odalisque, now in the Louvre. The liberation of the eye is the great revolution of painting in 19th-century France and, in Ingres’ inspection of nudes, you see, for the first time, the overt voyeurism that was to be taken to an extreme by Degas.
La Grande Odalisque painted in 1814, Ingres transposes the theme of the mythological nude, whose long tradition goes back to the Renaissance, to an imaginary Orient. This work, his most famous nude, was commissioned by Caroline Murat, Napoleon's sister and the queen of Naples. Here, Ingres paints a nude with long, sinuous lines bearing little resemblance to anatomical reality, but renders the details and texture of the fabrics with sharp precision. This work drew fierce criticism when it was displayed at the Salon of 1819.”
She looks over her shoulder at the viewer inviting observation. She is owned and paid for, she doesn’t challenge the viewer; she will move, when and where, she is told. You can trail your fingers down the length of that long, long spine. You can caress her. Test the weight of that firm breast in the palm of your hand. She will offer no resistance. Her owner has granted his permission. And the feather fan; is she going to masturbate with the handle?
From the Louvre website
“The woman lying on a divan is offering herself because she is nude and turns her face towards us. The painting's title, which means "harem woman," and the accessories around her conjure up the sensuous Orient. But the woman is also discreet because she shows only her back and part of one breast. The nude was a major theme in Western art, but since the Renaissance figures portrayed in that way had been drawn from mythology; here Ingres transposes the theme to a distant land.”
From The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
“La Grande Odalisque, a painting by Jean-Auguste Ingres (1780-1867), was throughout the 19th century notorious for its anatomical inaccuracy; in particular, the woman was said to have three lumbar vertebrae too many. This view was accepted by all art critics, but never tested and proven. We measured the length of the back and of the pelvis in human models, expressed the mean values in terms of head height, and transferred them to the painting. The deformation was found to be greater than originally assumed (five, rather than three, extra lumbar vertebrae), and to involve both the back and the pelvis. Ingres' paintings skilfully combine realism and symbolism. We suggest that the deformation may have been introduced for psychological reasons. By placing the harem woman's head further away from her pelvis the artist may have been marking the gulf between her thoughts (expressed by her aloof, resigned look) and her social role (symbolized by her deliberately lengthened pelvis).”
From the Louvre website.
“The Valpinçon Bather, Ingres’ first great nude, is the model for all his later nudes. She is already typical of Ingres’ style, with its sumptuous textures (for example, the turban), sinuous harmony of line, and depiction of the serene attitude and chaste sensuality of the woman's body-all enlisted in the quest for absolute perfection.
The work featuring a bathing woman is generally known by the name of one of its nineteenth-century owners. It was one of the works Ingres sent to Paris in 1808 when he was studying at the French Academy in Rome. This early work is a masterpiece of harmonious lines and delicate light. The woman's superb nude back left a deep impression on the artist; he returned to it in several later works, most notably the Turkish Bath”.
The woman is turned from the viewer; there is no fear of being found out. It is as if the woman, fresh from her bath, is in a peepshow. We can indulge in our private, debauched fantasies to our hearts’ content.
“Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) described the model as having a "deep voluptuousness", yet in many ways she is presented as essentially chaste.This contradiction is apparent in many elements of the painting. The turn of her neck and the curves of her back and legs are accentuated by the fall of the metallic green draperies, the swell of the white curtain in front of her and the folds of the bed sheets and linen. However, these elements are countered by the cool tone in which her flesh is rendered, as well as by elements such as the cool and elegant black-veined marble to the left of her. There is a stillness, a concentrated calm which only serves to heighten the implicit eroticism - what if, one wonders, she were actually to turn around?
Ingres returned to this form of this figure a number of times in his life; culminating in his The Turkish Bath of 1863, where the central figure in the foreground playing a mandolin echoes in rhythm and tone the model of the Valpinçon bather.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu travelled extensively. In 1716 she wrote the following in her journal after visiting a Turkish bath. One hundred years later, Ingres copied her description into his sketch book.
: "... il y avait bien la deux cent baigneuses; les premiers sophas furent couverts de cousins et de riches tapis; et toutes etaient nues. Cependant il n’y avait parmielles ni geste indecent, ni posture lascive…”
There were certainly two hundred (female) bathers there; the first sofa’s were covered with cushions and rich tapestries, and they were all nude (naked). However, none of them had indecent gestures or took on lascivious poses.
From that brief passage, Ingres painted his erotic masterpiece. However objective Lady Mary intended her account to be, it had the reverse effect on Ingres, for it inspired him to paint, forty five years later, one of the most erotic paintings that had been seen by the world.
Ingres combined all the elements into his greatest painting, Le Bain Turc, completed in 1863. This was originally a square composition, but only a photograph by Marville exists of the painting in this format. It was commissioned by Napoleon, but returned to the artist on the insistence of the Princess Clothilde, who was shocked by the lascivious postures of the naked figures.
Once the painting was back in the studio Ingres exercised his true mastery and miraculously turned it into a tondo. The circular composition is so convincing that it is hard to believe that it was ever conceived otherwise. An oil sketch exists showing how he rearranged the arms of the figure on the right. The right arm had previously fallen downwards. He raised it behind her head, but at the same time cunningly managed to keep the profile of the hand by transferring it to the arm of the figure below, where it now half conceals the bashful lady's face.
The Turkish Bath is erotica for the connoisseur. What at first seems to be a disorganised extravaganza of female flesh, is actually a carefully arranged series of images, where the eye is led around the steaming bath; our eyes’ journey around the painting is dictated by Ingres. First the magnificent back of the Valpinçon bather; here, she strums a lute. On the right a woman sprawls languidly, displaying herself without reticence. Two girls play with each others’ fat nipples. And it goes on and on. The air is hot and steamy; the scent of female arousal and smoky drugs, make the viewer giddy.
Ingres relished the irony of producing an erotic work in his old age, painting an inscription of his age (AETATIS LXXXII) on the work. - He did not paint this work from live models, but from several croquis and paintings he had produced over the course of his career, re-using 'bather' and 'odalisque' figures (he had earlier produced La Grande Odalisque) he had previously drawn or painted as single figures on a bed or beside a bath. The figure best known to have been copied is from his The Bather of Valpinçon, reproduced here almost identically and forming the central element of the new composition. The figure with her arms raised above her head in the right foreground, however, is based on an 1818 croquis of the artist's wife Madeleine Chapelle (1782-1849), though her right shoulder is lowered whereas her right arm is raised (an anatomical inconsistency usual in Ingres’ work - La Grande Odalisque has three additional vertebrae). The other bodies are juxtaposed in various unlit areas behind them.
In 1867 Ingres told others that he retained “all the fire of a man of thirty years.”
When he said that, he was eighty two years old. Good for you Monsieur Ingres!
All of the paintings featured here can be seen at the Louvre.
Big thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for the translations from French to English.