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The Position of Ingres in the Modern World

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

Since the close of the eighteenth century, which is to say from an early time in the life of Ingres, there have been people who believed in his greatness. He won the all-important Prix de Rome when barely twenty-one years of age, and deserved to win it the year before, when he first competed. Finished works of admirable quality dating from his ‘teens proclaim him an artist of almost the first rank already at that time, though even such testimony to his phenomenal talent is less startling than that which we get from drawings executed during his childhood. Like Mozart, whom he adored beyond all the other masters of music who meant so much to him, he was one of those prodigies who come into the world with a full equipment for the course before them.

Throughout his eighty-seven years he followed that course without an hour’s deviation, and his faith in it, united with his almost unique ability, brought him recognition which we may date from an order to paint Napoleon I (then about to ascend the throne, when Ingres was twenty-three), and which continued on to the ever growing homage of artists, museums, collectors, and critics that we witness today.

Yet this picture of a triumphant advance must be balanced by a record of opposition, doubt, and misunderstanding that began when the needy youth of twenty had the experience of being defeated for the great prize which went to Granger, a man soon forgotten, and has continued until today, when absurd misstatements about his work are heard from persons who should know better. It is clear that Ingres has not yet entered upon the period of general comprehension that is the lot of the masters of the past. Even if revaluations of the masters are still going on and will continue to go on, Ingres is, by contrast, a modern, with the capacity to arouse attack and defense which we associate with the moderns.

Having within the last two years published a translation of the great “Journal” of Delacroix, I know that this essay will be seen by some as resulting from a desire to balance accounts between the two famous rivals. No thought could be further from my mind, nor will I admit that there is antagonism between the two arts. They are complements, as may be seen by the example of one of the great men who was a follower of both. This was Renoir, concerning whom we have the precious record of the time when he was commissioned to copy a picture by Delacroix in the Louvre—and who found, on finishing his work there, that the principal change in his thinking due to his visits to the museum at this period came not from Delacroix but from Ingres 1 And this was at a time when Renoir was thirty-four years old, when his talent was already well formed, and when the opposition to Ingres among his comrades was so strong that he was obliged to make a secret of the hours he spent before “La Source” and the other works by Ingres.

The incident is a striking one. A man of free and original talent, Renoir belonged to a group which—at the time—deserved its standing as revolutionary. A colorist in the surest sense of that word, he was given an order to copy “The Jewish Wedding” by Delacroix, himself still considered a revolutionary as he had been from his early years, and, of course, a colorist if there ever was one. The two qualities made Delacroix the standard bearer of the splendid group in which Renoir was fighting with such conviction. Ingres had been the life-long opponent of the other master’s principles, and therefore was more than suspect to the men who were carrying on the research into color and the “modern” style for which everyone looked to Delacroix. Yet every time that Renoir left his easel before the superb canvas he was copying, one which contains so much of the romanticist’s pivotal experience of the Orient, it was to Ingres that the young master was drawn, each day more irresistibly. And a few years later, when the love of Ingres’ draftsmanship had increased still more, we see Renoir enter what is stupidly called the “sour period” in his work, the term being itself an indication of the misunderstanding which surrounds the masters of drawing, even to this day.

Better ideas of drawing grow apace with the successive veerings of interest among the painters. When cubism made its violent protest against the vagueness, the sensualism, and the free handling of the preceding time, Ingres and more especially his master, David, came to the fore again as leading exponents of an art wherein clear thinking and uncomplicated, logical execution were prime factors.

Yet even then there were artists who refused to forget the structural and intellectual quality in the work of Delacroix, and who insisted that his love of life did not cause him to step outside the limits of art. With the renewed appreciation of the two giants of the nineteenth century, it seems as if a period were before us when we may see the two glorious arts in their true place, neither through the eyes of partisans— personal or factional—nor yet as matters of historical evolution. It is easy to trace the great line of descent from Delacroix to Renoir, to Seurat, to van Gogh, to Matisse; but it is palpably unjust to Ingres to give him any responsibility for the bad drawing of the academies.

It is they who have “scandalized his name,” to use the words of one of our American Negro folk songs. Ingres has a responsibility in the matter, for he was quite willing to accept his election to the Academy when it was offered him, and this was after a long series of years during which he had himself been a victim of its mediocre and sterile membership; also, at the end of his life he defended the institution which he had often and bitterly flayed. But again it is too easy— speaking from the standpoint of today—to see that it was unfortunate for him to have chosen the company he did. Or was it unfortunate? Was it not simply inevitable, considering the nature of the man, his passionate adoration of the masters, his conservatism, and, on the other hand, the swiftly changing, adventurous character of the younger men ? After all, officialdom had a big share in giving him his material success and so giving him the leisure and opportunity to produce his great work. It is that which counts.

We have already noted that Renoir was his follower, and the descent indicated by the latter master is the essential one. It gives to Ingres his full share of influence on the great achievement since his time.

But the story of a man’s successors gives only a sidelight on his case; what we want is to know the man himself. The point I wish to make is that the great master of line and space hands on to us the ideas most necessary for the modern world.

How far away seems the time when the impressionists’ mere fervor for light and atmosphere produced such beautiful results 1 Their findings as to the relationship of color and luminosity are as definitely ranged with our acquired knowledge as are the researches of the old-time masters who gave us our understanding of perspective and anatomy. Of course, the fact that all these matters are taught in schools today takes away nothing of the wonder that surrounds the men who conquered these things from the realm of the unknown. So also the fact that the sciences mentioned are now common property gives to no thinking person the idea that possession, even perfect possession, of the ability to render perspective, anatomy, and light, places him on a par with those masters of the past. The point is that they are of the past, and only less so are the successors of the impressionists, like Gauguin with his nostalgia for the primitive and his flat design, or van Gogh with his unbridled expressionism and his violent—if glorious—color.

Indeed, men far nearer to us in time, even living men, are already “old school,” because of our rapidly evolving period. Matisse goes on to always more wonderful achievement, but there are few young men now who follow his example literally, as many did thirty years ago. And cubism, that most audacious of modern theories, while it is still producing fine results in the hands of a few of its originators, is accepted by the new generation only as a historical item, with either an academic value, a species of training, or else as a point of departure for something to be developed.

Once more we are in a period of beginnings, the preceding schools having gone ahead to such consummate achievement that no artist of any sense will try to add to it along its own lines. The character of the art of the immediate past coun-sels us in this way, and we are being led along the same lines in our political life by the need for new horizons in a world disgusted with the errors of yesterday and the miseries they caused. We have immense resources, we have everything required to make life abundant and happy to a degree it never reached before. We want to see the elements of our world in order to understand them.

And just that offers the first of the reasons for the new modernity of Ingres. The outline and form of things tell us about them more immediately, at all events, than their color, which changes so much with the hour of the day, the nature of the day, dark or sunny, and the nature of the beholder, his optimism or pessimism.

But there is another reason why a study of Ingres is timely, and why it will remain so for a long period. That reason lies in his classicism, a quality always associated with his name, but not always understood as a means of approach to the future. It is so today, when our prime need is for new logic in dealing with the problems ahead. True it is that Ingres is far from summing up our heritage from the past; it is indeed to a rather narrow section of it that he addresses himself. But he does that so consistently and so intensely that he poses, as directly as few have done, the question of man’s relationship with his ancestors. There is strength in this relationship and there is weakness, or at least danger. One sees the latter in Ingres, but above all one sees how much of our knowledge is passed on from the great men before us, and how we require their help. In a period as bewildered as our own, and one which so needs to get to a firm basis for new building, any light on so fundamental a question as the use of inherited values is evidently very real light.

But no reason for a study of Ingres is comparable to the intrinsic quality of his art, irrespective of any use we may want to make of it—or we may cite the supreme use that Poussin summed up, centuries ago, when he said that the purpose of art is delectation. The word is complex—one thinks of Cezanne’s demand that the picture have in it something educative. But the acquisition of new understanding is a form of delight, and a very pure and strong one. How is it accomplished? Not by the dogmatic means of the merely intellectual pursuits, nor yet by sensuous experience alone, for that may come down to matters like eating, smoking, or the other physical enjoyments. Painting is the true opus operum because it combines, in what is probably the most perfect balance we know, the pleasures of the mind and the pleasures of the senses.

And Ingres, in this definition of the word, is the very type of the painter. He satisfies our intelligence again and again with an art of limpid clearness and, within the limits of his work, limits of which he himself was quite unconscious, there is passion, which burns to incandescence. Accepting so much of the light of the past, he adds a new clarity, a new direction to that light. We see by it as we look backward and as we look forward. Mainly, however, we look neither way, but straight out upon the world we live in, upon its joy for the eyes, its satisfaction of our instinctive demand for what is healthy, balanced, and right. These many factors unite into one, which we call beauty, the distinguishing quality in the work of Ingres.


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