“If I had to select just one artist whose work is the most fruitful and instructive to the historian of dress for the period covering the first half of the Nineteenth Century, it would be Ingres. From that time, when the fashion spotlight was on the dress and appearance of women rather than on men Ingres has left an unrivalled and detailed record of the female image. Such images are primarily conjured up through portraiture, which is obviously I superb source of information on clothing. In his famous essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, Baudelaire remarks how portraits
are clothed in the costume of their own period. They are perfectly harmonious because everything – from costume and coiffure down to gesture, glance and smile (for each age has a deportment, a glance and a smile of its own) – everything, I say, combines to form a completely viable whole.
“When we look at portraits by Ingres, we ‘situate ourselves’ (in John Berger’s phrase apropos painted landscapes but even more relevant to portraiture) within the frame, we imagine ourselves wearing the garments the artist depicts with such intensity of detail, and we wonder how they would feel on our bodies; we conjure up the sensation of touch when we look at the fabrics. Ingres’s heightened depiction of the visible and the tactile becomes our experience, too. When one looks in detail at the surviving costume of the period, it is astonishing to see not just how accurate Ingres is in terms of the cut and construction of garments and the depiction of fabrics and accessories in his work, but also how alive he is to the nuances and the sense of clothing. Not only will Ingres paint the brilliance of a fine cashmere shawl, for example, where the colours flow like all oriental imagery, but he will also lead the eye to such tiny but telling details as the way in which the twisted fringe on the border of the fine wool gets caught up on the fabric of a dress. He will – even in a drawing – delight in the draping of the finest muslin gowns, and focus on the way in which this gossamer material is pleated at the neck or at the breast.
“As an artist who is so responsive to clothing and the postures that costume dictates – both signifiers of status and social display – it is all the more surprising that this crucial aspect of Ingres’s work has been ignored. It is my contention that we cannot fully understand Ingres until he is seen in relation to the world of fashion. Such a relationship was often uneasy (as it is today) in an artistic environment where the love of display and ornament so integral to fashion clashed with the pursuit of ‘high art’, and – in Ingres’s case – with the purity and austerity of draughtsmanship and a love of academic history painting.
“Ingres is as full of contradictions now as he was to his contemporaries. Critics then and now deplore his lack of spontaneity, his mannered and too ‘finished’ work in which his love of surfaces and things is so apparent. Baudelaire was not alone in being baffled by the almost suffocating presence of Ingres’s portraits, which he could only partly explain by deciding that such images were the creations of the artist’s obsession with the ideals of antiquity mingled with ‘the curiosities and minutiae of modern life’. The tension between Ingres’s love of history painting and his practice, from necessity, of portraiture, helped to produce images of women that are not just fashion-plate assemblages of clothes, which is how they are often described, but often startling creations which link realism with abstraction. Ingres was a perfectionist to the point of obsession, seeking precision and mastery of form – particularly with regard to the costume and accessories. His portraits are more than mere photographic records – the often painful and intense depiction of dress (painful because it sometimes gave the artist great trouble) serves to create a new genre, the dress as an art form in its own right within the art form of the traditional portrait.
“Even his famed opponent Delacroix, while denouncing Ingres for the production of works ‘that are merely clever and that satisfy nothing but idle curiosity’, admired his knowledge of dress and his feel for adornment, perceiving some glimmerings of Romanticism there. And if an element of Romanticism involves mental perturbation and a constant struggle to achieve a personal vision, this is what the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche saw in Ingres earlier this century. Describing him as tyrannical, pedagogic and opinionated – all words that occur many times apropos Ingres – Blanche also notes the way in which the artist wrestled with his problems, as ‘sublime touchant, admirable’, attempting, not always successfully, to reconcile his militant idealism based on classical perfection with a delight in colour and all appreciation of the sensual. Although Ingres’s work looks so effortless, so much a product of technical perfection, it was often the result of self-torment – he was not the self-satisfied artist of myth.
“On the subject of Ingres’s sensuality, a number of writers are troubled by the way in which his images of women seem to render them as objets de luxe, whether fashion idols or almost nude bathers and odalisques; a male ‘colonization’ of the eroticized female body is assumed. References to Venus, as Robert Rosenblum points out, permeate Ingres’s work, not just in the more obvious odalisques and bathers ‘whose lives are fully devoted to the arts of love’, but also ‘their nineteenth-century counterparts, the gallery of modern women whose portraits Ingres painted as if these sitters, too, were sequestered in the pampered confines of an exclusively erotic domain’.
“The unthinking passivity, implying a sexual submissiveness, that many critics see in Ingres’s depictions of women, ‘without secret troubles, impossible dreams or fancies in their heads, made for healthy and simple love . . .’,’ is to be seen, so the argument goes, in the way in which women of fashion exist, in the Baudelairean sense, only through their clothes and accessories, and are as much kept creatures as the bathers and odalisques.
“To some extent this is true, particularly with regard to the portraits of fashionable women in which Ingres reflects in a non-judgemental way the part played by clothes in female lives that were largely dependent on men. In Ingres’s nude figures there is clearly some element of the proprietary masculine eye in the pleasures of the naked body, but this is hardly surprising in the context of the long history of this type of image which mingles classical and Renaissance tradition with unashamed voyeurism.
“An overwrought and simplistic viewpoint is expressed by Berger: ‘To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which in that situation can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.’ The lack of hair, by implication, is argued to be a form of masquerade, for hair was associated with real life, and with passion. In opposition to this, it could be argued that the hairless nude that Ingres depicts relates not only to the classical and Renaissance ideal, but to the actual depilated body of the female inhabitants of the harem. Ingres’s traditional training allied to his research into the customs of the Ottoman court produced a hybrid marriage of the ideal and the real; his bathers and odalisques are ideal beauties, but also real women, their existence emphasized by the artist’s choice of luxury fabrics and accessories. Ingres’s excursions into this genre are far removed from the productions of contemporary orientalist painters who depict ‘images of womanhood in which remote and beautiful ladies, lost in some cold and vacant reverie, hint at a refined eroticism which makes women into objects of delectation . . . that springs from a physical revulsion against their solid, carnal presence’.
“Whether, as Berger suggests, women colluded in seeing themselves exposed and depicted nude for masculine consumption seems irrelevant, and cannot be proved. We do not know what women thought of such images, or if they thought about them at all. There seems no reason to suppose that women could not take pleasure in looking at female nudes, in the way that today we can experience a similar delight once we disencumber ourselves of the baggage of late twentieth-century critical comment.
“It is important also to note that, for the historian of dress, a study of the nude is essential to understanding the fashionable aesthetic of the period. The Goncourt Journal stresses the need for the artist to paint the nude woman of his own time:
The female body is not immutable. It changes according to civilizations, periods, customs. The body of the time of Phidias is no longer that of our time. Other customs, another age, another line. The elongation, the free- flowing grace of Goujon or Parmigianino are only the woman of their time caught in the elegance of the type . . . The painter who does not paint the woman of his time will not endure.
“The Goncourts felt that the ‘worked over, polished, naively stupid’ recreations of the women of antiquity by Ingres (the specific reference here is to La Source, now in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) would have no lasting appeal. Such paintings are indeed largely irrelevant to a study of dress, and these anodyne works have been omitted. Ingres’s genius lies in the relationships of women to the garments that clothe them and the fabrics and accessories that surround them. In portraits and in ‘orlentalist’ scenes alike, Ingres conveys the pleasure of seeing, through the female body and its ornamentation. It is precisely these images by Ingres that have attracted so much hostile and irritated comment from a wide range of critics. To Clive Bell, writing in the 1920s (when a slim androgynous female form was in vogue), Ingres’s nudes, ‘the heavy hareem type of the artist were sensuality, the hearty appetite of a great eupeptic bourgeois’. Ten years later Martin Davies declares a thinly veiled contempt for what he sees as the ‘grossly feminine’ in Ingres. Ingres’s own contemporaries as well as twentieth-century critics tend to shy away from his avid recording of fashion and his celebration of sleek female flesh. It is now time to appreciate Ingres as – in Baudelaire’s words – ‘a fashionable milliner’, and to revel in what one recent art historian has called his ‘couturier’s instincts’. This book has the artist as hero, he is the focal point from which to explore the role of dress and undress in the wider context of the world of fashion.
“Ingres is, however, a famously unheroic hero, it must be observed. Dour and uncommunicative in an age of lively critical and artistic debate, his recorded thoughts tend towards aphoristic and somewhat gnomic utterances on art intended mainly for his pupils, together with alarmingly dogmatic and eccentric comments on music and literature. There is nothing like the vivid journals of Delacroix, in which the words dance off the page and reflect the artist’s absorbed interest in his life and times (including a fascination with clothes) and his relations with a wide circle of fellow artists, writers and composers. Ingres did not involve himself in the wider intellectual scene of his time, his main contacts being with a small group of intimates, including his favoured pupils; it is from the latter that we gain our impressions of Ingres the man as well as Ingres the artist.
“Whatever Ingres might have thought about politics, there is very little factual information, either in the form of his own published comments or those of his friends, on the dramatic events that marked the first half of the nineteenth century in France: the upheavals of the French Revolution giving way to an empire under Napoleon, then in the Restoration a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVIII, followed by the ‘ultra-royalist’ Charles X who was deposed in 1830 and replaced by a liberal Orl&anist regime under Louis-Philippe; a revolution in 1848 brought a republic, which was then succeeded in 1852 by the restoration of the Bonaparte dynasty in the person of Napoleon III and the establishment of the Second Empire. Many artists and writers were caught up in politics and such a background is essential to an understanding of their work. For Ingres, only the changing narrative of costume in portraiture indicates the passing of time; his politics do not intrude. His strength lay in his driving commitment to his own vision of truth which, coupled with his sense of the ideal – even to the occasional distortion of the human body – created portraits that are timeless, formal and often complex in structure and technically highly accomplished. Easier to appreciate, perhaps, at a more immediate level, are the portrait drawings, with their delicacy and spontaneity; these depict a wider range of clothing than the grandes toilettes of the painted canvases, and their very informality acts as a commentary on the constantly changing form of fashion, so much a part of modern life.
“This book is not a catalogue raisonne of Ingres’s portraits of women, nor is it a life of the artist. It will, I hope, appeal to art historians and to dress historians who increasingly (and laudably) find their interests overlapping. This book is largely about things – the fashions, fabrics and accessories that were part of the existence of nearly all women in the nineteenth century, rich or poor. It is these things that Ingres depicts both as formalized objects and as necessary ingredients in his portraits, bathers and odalisques. It is clear that the artist must have looked at a great deal of fashion, as well as a wide range of other arts such as illuminated manuscripts, illustrated costume books and – later in his career – photography. His adoration of Raphael is well known, but the work of a wide range of artists resonates in his portraits and one might pick out, for example, Holbein and the Swiss eighteenth-century painter Jean-Etienne Liotard – both artists who had a northern European love of crisp detail in their depiction of fashion and fabrics.
“No artist, even one as self-contained as Ingres, works in isolation, and it is necessary to discuss the artist within the context of the critical debate surrounding the problems of how to represent clothes in art. A discussion of the fashionable world that forms a backdrop to Ingres’s work precedes a narrative of the main changes in dress displayed through the artist’s drawings. The focal point of this book is an examination of the dress in Ingres’s portraits, and it brings together the critical comment on the portraits in general, especially those in which the sitters’ clothes are mentioned.
“To some extent we can only guess at the answer to the question, What does Ingres see in dress? Perhaps the more important question is, What do we see in the dress that Ingres depicts? This book attempts to answer such a question.”
From: “Ingres in Fashion”, by Aileen Ribeiro