Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 23, 2008
Andrew Carrington Shelton Ingres and His Critics New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 334 pp.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $101.00 (9780521842433)
Thumbnail

The past decade or so has seen the emergence of a great deal of stimulating writing on Ingres, including important work by Carol Ockman, Adrian Rifkin, Susan Siegfried, and others.1 One defining characteristic of this new writing is its interest in and acceptance of tensions and paradoxes in Ingres’s work and reception. As Siegfried writes in the introduction to a special issue of Art History devoted to the artist, the “new way of thinking about Ingres . . . illuminates the artist as a subject of contradictions, which are . . . constitutive of his practice and deeply embedded as well in critical and art-historical writings on him” (651). Andrew Shelton’s book shares this interest in contradiction, but sees it in terms of a strategic question: how could “an academically indoctrinated artist . . . establish his supremacy in what was essentially a post-academic age?” (11)

In seeking an answer to this question, Shelton focuses on Ingres’s exhibition practice and critical reception between 1834 and 1855, a period often characterized as one of semi-retirement for the artist. Shelton resists this characterization and argues instead that during this time Ingres continuously and subtly manipulated exhibition rhetoric and the contemporary press in order to assert his preeminence in the French école. By showing his work in single-artist exhibitions and fostering new literary forms such as the illustrated oeuvre catalogue, Ingres pushed critics to think of him as “a unique and essentially autonomous, self-generating, and self-regulating creative subjectivity” (11)—a genius, in other words. Though Ingres’s achievement of the reputation he desired was by no means an easy task, Shelton argues that by the time of the 1855 Universal Exposition Ingres’s preferred critical framework was solidly in place. For Shelton, this development has important implications beyond the field of Ingres studies. The “ideological neutralization of art” performed by mid-century Ingres criticism is a “prominent feature of early modernism as well” (12); the development of this view of Ingres should thus be “assigned an important, generative role” in the establishment of modernist discourse (237).

Shelton’s book makes its argument through a series of case studies. Chapter 1 examines the critical controversy surrounding the exhibition of the Martyrdom of Saint Symphorien at the 1834 Salon, an episode that prompted Ingres to withdraw from the Salon for good. Often viewed as a moment of failure that signaled Ingres’s distance from contemporary art trends, the reception of Saint Symphorien is reinterpreted by Shelton as a complex intersection of aesthetic and political discourse, as well as of anxieties concerning gender, race, and class. According to Shelton, it is the messiness of this response rather than its judgment (many critics wrote positive reviews of Ingres’s work) that led to Ingres’s self-removal from the state-sponsored exhibition. Faced with “a meandering and digressive, all-encompassing critical discourse,” Ingres sought to control the reception of his work more tightly. He wanted to create viewing conditions for his paintings that would encourage critics to interpret them on their own terms instead of in relation to things outside themselves (67).

In chapters 2 and 3, Shelton follows the development of Ingres’s new strategy in the early 1840s when he exhibits works such as La Stratonice (1840) and La Vierge à l’Hostie (1841) in the apartment of the duc d’Orléans and in his studio. Embedded in private spaces, these exhibitions generated a critical response that tended to separate the pictures from most non-artistic issues, focusing on style and connections to Ingres’s biography. Although admission to the exhibitions was restricted, many Parisians did have access to them through press reports, as was so often the case with supposedly private exhibitions in nineteenth-century France. And as the exhibitions entered the public sphere they did at times spark fiercely negative commentary in satirical publications like Le Charivari. Focused on Ingres’s lust for publicity and his attempts to manipulate the press, such commentary contests the rhetoric of autonomy in play around Ingres’s work, without necessarily weakening it. It also suggests a high degree of awareness within the nineteenth-century press about how the mechanisms of publicity worked, which gives the cultural historian’s vocabulary of strategies and self-fashioning a strong period foundation.

Chapter 4 considers the interplay between Ingres’s exhibition practice and an “upsurge of interest in [Ingres’s] biography” that begins in 1840–41 with the near simultaneous appearance of four biographical essays devoted to the artist (135). Shelton connects the isolating tendencies of the studio exhibitions to these essays: removed from the rough-and-tumble of the Salon, Ingres’s works increasingly seemed explicable only in terms of the artist’s career. At the same time, the biographies attempt to sort out competing views of Ingres’s life—competing “artist functions,” as Shelton puts it, adapting Michel Foucault’s term—though with limited success. Shelton points to two apparently contradictory narratives that structure the biographical accounts: one that sees Ingres as the entrenched chef d’école and another that represents him as a marginalized genius. It is Shelton’s overarching argument that the coexistence of these two views should be understood both as a symptom of and a solution to a larger art-institutional crisis in France. With traditional institutions powerful but under siege, it made sense for Ingres to simultaneously seek official favor and assert his independence.

Reinforcing the biographical turn in Ingres criticism was the artist’s increasing interest in retrospective exhibition formats, evident in the display of eleven of his works at the Bonne Nouvelle exhibition in 1846. Shelton credits Ingres with playing an important role in the development of this exhibition mode and, in chapter 5, connects it to the publication in 1851 of one of the first illustrated oeuvre catalogues devoted to a living artist. In Shelton’s account, the display of Ingres’s work at the 1855 Exposition Universelle becomes a powerful summation of the developing presentational and textual strategies of Ingres and his supporters. Though a group exhibition of the kind that Ingres had largely rejected for twenty years, its organizers granted him a separate room to display a substantial retrospective selection of his work, which critics discussed primarily in terms of the artist’s unique creative sensibility. The Exposition Universelle thus reinforced Ingres’s desired critical framework and represented an official endorsement of his “modernist mystification” (220).

Shelton’s case-study format allows him to engage deeply with his chosen texts. He takes the time to explore their twists and turns, and to examine their complicated relationships to the field of nineteenth-century criticism. As impressive as Shelton’s handling of the texts is his attention to the interdependence of criticism and display practices; he shows that they simply cannot be separated. More importantly, by explaining how private exhibitions could have a major impact on an artist’s reputation, Shelton complicates the classic (and still-dominant) model of nineteenth-century art-institutional functioning proposed by Harrison and Cynthia White (Harrison C. and Cynthia A. White, Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965). According to the Whites, the French art world was governed by the entwined institutions of Salon and academy until they were supplanted by the dealer-critic system in the nineteenth-century’s final decades. Shelton shows us, however, that even during the period of the Salon’s supposed hegemony, other spaces of exhibition—the studio, the private apartment, the department store—mattered, and in complex ways.

Despite Shelton’s clear interest in institutional structures and the discourse of criticism, his book is still a monograph, and this produces some quite severe foreclosures with regard to broader contextual issues. The account of critics’ negotiation of issues of gender, race, and class in relation to the Saint Symphorien is so rich, for example, that this reader wanted Shelton to expand his analysis synchronically to include additional artists and artworks and to engage more substantially with the work of scholars such as Darcy Grigsby who have addressed similar issues in early-nineteenth-century painting (Darcy Grigsby, Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002; see also Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997). Similarly, so lucid is Shelton’s explanation of the relationship between Ingres’s exhibitions and critical texts that one wants to know more about how other artists operated in this environment. Further, with recent work on exhibitions and urban space in mind, one wants more discussion of relationships between Ingres’s displays and other forms of Parisian spectacle (see, in particular, Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Of course, these are issues for different books and other scholars, but they do raise an interesting question: can a monograph’s content override the content of its form?

Daniel Harkett
Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art and Visual Culture, Rhode Island School of Design

1 Carol Ockman, Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); Adrian Rifkin, Ingres Then, and Now (London: Routledge, 2000); Todd Porterfield and Susan Siegfried, Staging Empire: Napoleon, Ingres, and David (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006); and essays in a special issue of Art History devoted to Ingres (vol. 23, no. 5 (2000)), reissued separately as Susan Siegfried and Adrian Rifkin, eds., Fingering Ingres (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.