Eye Candy for Today: Ingres’ portraits of Madame Moitessier

Madame Moitessier, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Madame Moitessier, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, National Gallery of Art, DC
Madame Moitessier, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The National Gallery, London

When asked to paint Madame Moitessier, Ingres — who was at a later point in his career in which he was less inclined to take on portrait commissions — initially refused. On meeting her, however, he was struck by her appearance and agreed.

He first started a seated portrait, shown above, bottom. Work on the portrait came to a halt on the death of Ingres’ wife. Seven years later, at the prompting of Madame Moitessier, Ingres began again with a fresh standing composition. A few years after that portrait was completed, he returned to the seated portrait and brought it to a finish.

The standing portrait, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is the more striking of the two. The sitter’s expression is detached, her eyes unfocused, or even focused in different directions. I don’t know if this reflects Madame Moitessier’s actual appearance, but I suspect it does, given Ingres insistence of painting everything from life in order to achieve the faithfulness to nature with which he was deeply concerned.

The seated portrait, now in the National Gallery, London, was originally to include the sitter’s daughter, but she was left out of the final painting.


10 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Ingres’ portraits of Madame Moitessier”

  1. Yeah, I noticed that about the eyes. Even in the standing portrait their “lines of site” appear to diverge, like the opposite of being cross-eyed.

  2. “The sitter’s expression is detached, her eyes unfocused, or even focused in different directions. I don’t know if this reflects Madame Moitessier’s actual appearance, but I suspect it does, given Ingres insistence of painting everything from life in order to achieve the faithfulness to nature with which he was deeply concerned.”
    It’s called strabismus (misaligned eyes).

  3. I saw many year ago a wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Ingres portraits. Included in the show was an unfinished portrait. It was the first time I was able to see the structure behind the perfect finish of his portraits. His knowledge and confidence, even at this early stage, was breath-taking.
    I left the show feeling that his male portraits were more natural and full of life. They seemed to move about in the frame. His Portrait of” Louis Bertin”, the writer and publisher is a perfect example.
    I found the female portraits weird. There had this disturbing idealization turning them into bejeweled Greek Goddess. They always have some odd anatomical strangeness like bone less pneumatic arms or extra vertebrae as in “The Bather.” I wonder if they are a likeness or some real-ideal hybrid.
    From my art school days I have always admired his work; from his superb effortless draughtmenship to the jewel like finish of his paintings. I also like his odd ball-over crowed history paintings that he put so much effort into with bizarre results.

  4. Still, it’s hard to know if the painter liked the model or was being critical of her, in a portrayal which is distracted, plump, somewhat unhappy. Since he returned to the paintings over a course of some years, it would seem that he was committed to them, interested in them. On the other side, it’s obvious to wonder what the sitter and her family thought of this portrayal. it’s certainly not flattering.

  5. Author wrote: “It’s possible, I guess. The effect is slight enough it’s hard to tell.”
    Well, to me it’s all clear, because there is a blood relative I’ve known since my youth with exactly the same (green eyed) looks. I wouldn’t want her any differently. She is so special to us all, her family, her husband and kids.

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    It’s hard to know about Ingres. Many of his portraits of women are far from flattering, yet are rendered with such extraordinary attention to presentation and precision that one might assume they are accurate, a case in point being the Portrait of the Countess of Tournon here in Philadelphia.

    Ingres doesn’t seem to have tried to flatter his portrait subjects, though it has occurred to me that this kind of apparent faithfulness to the sitter’s appearance may actually be a form of flattery — an assumption in his approach that the subject is inherently attractive as seen in their own mirror, without need for artistic modification. Emphasizing the clothing and jewelry, as though forming a precious setting for the subject’s appearance (as well, of course as an acknowledgement of wealth and position) may emphasize that.

    I believe that the sometimes odd appearance of his figures comes from Ingres’ belief in the supremacy of line (or edges) over volumetric shading in the representation of form.

    I agree that Ingres portrait paintings, particularly those of women, are almost a bit surreal, their intense realism somewhat dreamlike and strange. My favorite works by Ingres are his graphite portraits, but his paintings are fascinating and powerful.

  7. Ingres was a supreme master. However, in regard of “dreamlike and strange realism” one see in his female portraits, I studied his works and I do think it has something with the way he rendered eyes. The misaligned eyes are more noticeable in Ingres’ graphite drawings than in oil portraits, and more in female than male sitters, but it is there. Check the graphite portrait of Paganini for instance…or Comte Turpin de Crissé, Joséphine Nicaise-Lacroix, Madame Felix Gallois, Mademoiselle Mary de Borderieux, Mme Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne, etc etc…
    Another thing: the eye on the further side of the face in semi-profile is often drawn not in the same line as the closer one, but at a certain angle (see graphite portrait of Kaunitz sisters).

  8. Very interesting! Thanks, Valentino.

    For the benefit of other readers, here are some of the portraits mentioned:
    Paganini: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/337364
    Lancelot-Théodore, comte Turpin de Crissé: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/337445
    Portrait of Mlle Joséphine Nicaise-Lacroix: http://www.themorgan.org/collection/drawings/109864
    Madame Félix Gallois: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/459213
    Mademoiselle Mary de Borderieux: http://uploads4.wikiart.org/images/jean-auguste-dominique-ingres/mademoiselle-mary-de-borderieux.jpg
    Mme Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne: http://www.themorgan.org/drawings/item/267055
    Kaunitz sisters: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/334710

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