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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ingres, the Transitional Artist

Psyche Receiving the First Kiss of Cupid,
1796, Francois Gerard, a perennial
favorite with the adolescent boys
For an artist, there is no more visually exciting experience than to "lose" oneself in a great art museum. In fact, some are so great that "losing oneself" is quite literally a problem. And anyone who had ever taken a group of young people to a great art museum can think of little else. I once questioned a group of boys on the way home from just such a foray as to why they had obviously enjoyed themselves so much. One told me, in so many words, "Where else can you go around looking at pictures of naked women and no one gets on your case about it?" He had a point, of course. I had earlier noticed this group gravitating toward the "French quarter" of the museum and particularly the work of the Neoclassical and Romantic artists such as Jean-Auguste Ingres, Francois Gerard, and Jean Broc, three of their country's most notorious painters of "naked women." For centuries, art has been a respectable safe haven for those at all levels of society who wanted to admire (or perhaps leer) at the nude figure without someone "getting on their case about it," as my adolescent friend so succinctly put it. 

The Death of Hyacinthus, 1801, Jean Broc
As my teenage art lovers quickly discovered, the early nineteenth century is an interesting case study in this regard. And Jean-Auguste Ingres (pronounced Ang) is a critical art figure of this time. Born in 1780, he was the star pupil of the Neoclassical painting icon, Jacques-Louis David. His early work is quite conservative, replete with graceful portraits, a stunning ability to handle printed fabric, and a taste for dramatic allegory. But Ingres is also a transitional figure. Though his work never approached the loose brushwork or lavish color of Delacroix, nor depicted the shocking, gory details of Gericault, he was such a pivotal figure in French art for the first two-thirds of the 19th century we can get a real handle on what was happening in the painting capital of the world at the time just by studying his 67 years of work.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808,
Jean-Auguste Ingres
What was happening, of course, was the zenith of Academic art, and within it, a "French Revolution" of sorts as Ingres at first fought, then accepted, then promoted the Romantic movement in painting. Gerard's Psyche Receives Cupid's First Kiss (top, right), painted in 1796 was the opening shot in this revolution.  It was classical, yet clearly Romantic in it's blatant eroticism. Broc's The Death of Hyacinthus (above, left), painted in 1801 even adds a homoerotic Romantic broadside to the dominance of reserved Classicism of the time.  In 1808, Ingres seems to be "accepting" of this new art in his Oedipus and the Sphinx (right), his first classical nude (male by the way) in which his Greek hero confronts the bare-breasted lion goddess, solving her riddle, which leads to her suicide. Oedipus of course, goes on to unknowingly fall in love with his own mother, whom he marries, which leads to her suicide once she finds out--classical mythology, but pretty tragic stuff, and typical of Romantic art. By 1818, Ingress had (philosophically at least) fully joined the movement with his Roger Freeing Angelica (below), a Renaissance tale developed into a full-fledged Romantic epic in which he demonstrates his own devotion to the female romantic nude.  I must confess, if you haven't realized it by now, this period of French art has always been one of my favorites too, ever since I was a teenage boy.
Roger Delivering Angelica, 1819, Jean-Auguste Ingres

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