Ingres: Critiques and Line

Michelle Lasley | Art History 481: Prof. Lee Stewart

Born in 1780, Ingres came into a world rife with conflict and revolution. Trained in the school of neo-classicism, Ingres is known for using his own system for the art he created. In addition, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the eldest of seven children1, maintained a childlike hypersensitivity2 that would provide him the motivation to quit the Salon and the French Academy and move to Rome after much criticism over his painting The Martyrdom of St. Symphorien (Image 1). Andrew C. Shelton, in his thorough review, describes how the conflict surrounding St. Symphorien is less about Ingres’ technique and more about the politics of the time. In this paper, I will argue that Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is more concerned with maintaining his style and securing commissions than in fully participating in contemporary politics.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was commissioned to paint The Martyrdom of St. Symphorien in 1824 after his Vow of Louis XIV was shown at the Salon of the same year. Monseigneur Roch-Étienne de Vichy, the Bishop of Autun requested that Ingres paint the martyr at the most dramatic moment preceding his death, outlining seven points in which he required Ingres to follow. Although Ingres hesitated, at first, in the end he followed exactly the Bishop’s recommendations. The painting was to replace Fra Bartolomeo’s The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine in Autun in the Romanesque Cathedral Saint-Lazare. Ingres reworked St. Symphorien several times during the ten years taken to complete the work before it was exhibited, untimely, at the Salon of 1834, during the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. As a result, instead of being viewed as a simple commission completed under specific criteria, many critics at the Salon condemned the piece as warming to a religious monarchy instead of a free republic.3 4

The amateur’s eye sees the Martyrdom of St. Symphorien as a dramatic piece that focuses on the Saint, who stands nearly in the center of the canvas, slightly to the left, with his arms and body making an “X” shape, like he his parting the crowd that surrounds him. The eye is directed up and to the left where we see Augusta, Symphorien’s mother, reaching over the edge of the monumental architecture behind which she stands. She reaches toward her son in a manner reminiscent of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The eye travels the canvas to the right along the monstrous Roman architecture down to a spired colonnade amidst the crowds, and back to the left where we come full circle to St. Symphorien. The light comes from the right side of the canvas illuminating the saint to emphasize his godly qualities while casting the crowd to the viewer’s left and behind him in shadows. A man directly above the Saint’s right hand, in a diagonal line between the saint and his mother, points to the painting’s right side toward a sign, with illegible text, held by one of the lictors leading Symphorien away.

Ignoring the politics surrounding the piece, one can clearly see how Ingres interpreted the painting in his own style while following, verbatim, the Bishop’s instructions.

The moment chosen is that in which the young Symphorien, dragged outside the gates of the city by the governor’s satellites and executioners, is being conducted to the temple of Berecynthia in order either to sacrifice to the idols there or lose his life. 5

The Bishop’s description clearly explains how Ingres was to visual the piece. The viewer sees Symphorien as the centerpiece of the painting, illuminated in white, forming the diagonals in which the rest of the painting is based. The eye next moves onto the Saint’s mother.

His mother, situated nearby atop the walls of the city, encourages her son to suffer courageously the agony that is before him and reminds him of the immortal rewards that God reserves for him in the afterlife.

The young martyr turns toward his mother in order to bid her a final farewell and to show her that his heart, fortified by faith, was ready to brave torture and death, and that he yearned to confirm with all his blood the Gospels of Jesus Christ. 6

Symphorien’s right hand is extended in a defiant pose, points towards his mother, who reaches down frantically repeating the Saint’s pose, which emphasizes the strife of fighting for religion. Although the proportions of the mother are exaggerated, it fits well within Ingres’ style and only serves to reinforce the bond between mother and son by making her appear nearly the same size as he. The viewer sees the gloriousness of answering to a higher calling, turning towards God and abandoning all worldly possessions for dying for honor of faith. The Saint’s steadfastness is juxtaposed to the mixed reactions of the crowd.

A large crowd of onlookers displays the various sentiments of astonishment and indignation, sadness and pity, that such a spectacle would inspire in a city that was still almost entirely pagan. 7

Cast in shadow, the various onlookers of the crowd, from rich to poor, individuals, and mothers with their children, surround St. Symphorien. All gaze towards him with varied emotions on their faces.
Next, the Bishop outlines the placement of the painting.

The scene takes place just outside the gate that is currently called the Portail Sante-André, which should occupy at least a portion of the background of the painting. It should be rendered faithfully after the drawing that is engraved in the work of M. Delebrode on the monuments of France.

One should perceive a bit further in the distance the colonnade forming the peristyle of the temple of Berecynthia. This last detail is left to the discretion of the artist. 8

Since the city of Autun was under Roman domination at this time, the costumes should be Roman from the time of the Antoinines’ reign.9

The people portrayed are all dressed in the age-appropriate garb, the colonnade forms the diagonal opposite Symphorien’s mother, and the location seems accurate without having visited. Regarding the politics of the time, Shelton with his thorough review points out that of sixty-three reviews, thirty-five are opposed to Ingres’ piece, twenty-five curry favor with the Saint, and three reviews are non-committal.10 Shelton further points out that the negative reviews are often found in political journals and compare Ingres to an aristocratic supporter of despotic regimes, instead of looking at the commissioned instructions. Symphorien’s mother is a strong female character, taking the role of the father figure as portrayed by David’s Brutus, for example, so it can be believed that Ingres tailored his portrayal to the request of his patron, and not to the politics of the time. For example, when painting commissioned works for Napoleon, Ingres and David both portrayed women as weaker to parlay towards Napoleon’s desires and wants for how his painting should look.11

Ingres reworked paintings and subjects for the length of his career. He is known for maintaining a style, ingrisme, which was a blend of classical and romantic intentions, although not juste milieu. He is known for his design interests and consistency. He is also known as a superb draftsman, using hard graphite points on a coated paper12 to achieve the magnificent look of being able to define texture with what appears only a few simple strokes, such as in his Portrait of Paganini. Ingres was guided “by the marvelous functional design of the ideal human body, and … the linear and spatial pictorial design which Raphael perfected.”13 With this style and sure hand, Ingres supported himself and his family by charging for graphite portraits he made for tourists when stipend dollars ran out in Rome.14 To understand Ingres’ method, it is important to look at his own words such as, “Line is drawing. It is everything,” and when instructing, “Draw for a long time before thinking of painting. When one builds on a solid foundation, one sleeps in peace.”15 One can understand better why he reworked pieces several times and exhibited a piece twenty years after its completion to show his consistency, wanting to say, “Look from where I have departed and where I have arrived.”16 He desired to be a safe investment for his patrons, and that too confined him to a particular style and level of production.17

Although Ingres was part of contemporary politics, when it came to satisfying his patrons requests, he focused more on those requests and his design elements rather than creating an overt political piece. By focusing, and refocusing on line and reworking his pieces for years, Ingres created a solid foundation, his system, for establishing his consistent type and stature as an artiste. St. Symphorien serves as a great example of how politics muddied the commissioned intent and Ingres’ interpretation, and it is understandable why the thin-skinned artist gave up the Salon and its hype and retreated to a place where perhaps he would be freer to express himself and his system of art.

References

  • Boime, Albert. 1985. Declassicizing the academic: A realist view of Ingres. Art History. 8(1)(03):50-65.
  • Brown, Marilyn R., and Rose R. Weil. 1984. Ingres’s pursuit of perfection. Art Journal. 44(2)(06):179.
  • Carrier, David. 2007. Politically incorrect art. Foundation for International Art Criticism.
  • Mitchell, Mark G. 2007. Learning from the masters: Ingres’ miraculous lines. Drawing. 4(12):42-57.
  • Shelton, Andrew Carrington. 2000. Ingres versus Delacroix. Art History. 23(5)(12):726.
  • Shelton, Andrew Carrington. 2001. Art, politics, and the politics of art: Ingres’s Saint Symphorien. Art Bulletin. 83(4)(12):711.
  • Shelton, Andrew Carrington. 2005. Ingres and His Critics. Cambridge University Press: New York, New York. Pp 320.
  • Siegfried, Susan L. 2000. Ingres’s reading – the undoing of narrative. Art History. 23(5)(12):654.
  • Skira, Albert. 1967. Ingres: The Taste of Our Time. The World Publishing Company: Cleveland, Ohio. Pp 131.
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