Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 12, 2012
Susan L. Siegfried Ingres: Painting Reimagined New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 517 pp.; 224 ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300148831)

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s paintings have seduced, repelled, and baffled viewers since the early nineteenth century—sometimes producing all three effects simultaneously. But if Ingres’s work has provoked strong feelings in his viewers, as Susan Siegfried argues in Ingres: Painting Reimagined, it has elicited curiously dull critical interpretations. For many years, Ingres was treated either as a tediously conservative classicist or a simple-minded realist. Feminists reviled him for his treatment of the female figure—nudes polished out of anatomical existence or portraits weighed down with the reified finery of the bourgeoisie—and social historians of art avoided him because his work could not be brought in line with progressive politics. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ingres’s biggest fans were artists and writers like Pablo Picasso or Louis Aragon who celebrated him as a perversely elegant formalist and an unwitting poet of modernity’s worst impulses.

Now, however, Ingres is hot. Siegfried’s book joins a distinguished group of monographs that over the last twenty years has positioned Ingres as a central figure in nineteenth-century art. Siegfried herself has played a major role in the reconsideration of Ingres, beginning with her dissertation on the critical response to Ingres’s early work (Harvard, 1980).1 Ingres: Painting Reimagined is thus the culmination of thirty years of thinking about the artist and his place in the history of modern art. At 517 pages and 224 illustrations, Ingres: Painting Reimagined is, both qualitatively and quantitatively, a monumental study. The book is minutely researched and argued, balancing archival documentation, lucid theoretical reflection, and sustained and poetic visual analysis. Its structure, neither strictly chronological nor neatly divided by genre of painting, reflects Siegfried’s claim that Ingres was a master of open-ended narrative; it provides many possible ways of understanding his paintings, but resists a single explanation.

The book’s ambitions and complexities reflect both the depth of Siegfried’s research and the breadth of her thinking on the topic. On one hand, her argument revolves around the artist as an individual. Rejecting the reception theory that inspired her first work on Ingres, she sets out to “rescue Ingres’s intentionality” (11), to map his imaginative process, and to identify his conscious and subconscious artistic strategies. Ingres’s work, she argues, is defined by his conflicting desires; he wants to conform to the norms of Academic painting, but he also yearns to set himself apart as an autonomous subject. Siegfried’s understanding of Ingres’s desires draws on Freudian psychoanalytic theory; her evidence comes not only from visual analysis of his work and biographic information about his career, but also from careful study of Ingres’s own notebooks. Indeed, Siegfried presents Ingres as an active reader and manipulator of texts as well as a creator of images, and her insistence on recuperating his intention is an implicit rebuke to art historians preoccupied with the social and political utility of objects.

On the other hand, Siegfried is clearly interested in the effects of Ingres’s work, both on individual viewers and on the course of nineteenth-century painting. Ingres’s circumlocutory narrative techniques, she argues, force the viewer to take responsibility for interpreting his paintings. Siegfried, in her introduction, pushes this claim to something of a logical extreme. She tells her readers, “My evidence for interpreting the works comes from the works themselves—at least, from my responses to them—rather than primarily from the artist’s biography or critical commentaries on the paintings” (8). Citing Norman Bryson’s and Richard Wollheim’s work on Ingres, which she credits as references for her own study, she argues that their very different (but equally astute, in her eyes) interpretations “attest to the instabilities of ‘reading’ or viewing works of art” (8). In fact, as she herself acknowledges, Siegfried draws significantly on Ingres’s biography in order to propose remarkably effective readings of his paintings that assume, at least at some level, that meaning begins with the artist and the work themselves.

Ultimately, Siegfried argues that Ingres’s formal and conceptual innovations heralded a larger shift in the priorities and strategies of modern art. Siegfried credits Ingres with developing a new form of narrative painting that broke with the Neoclassical humanism of Jacques-Louis David, his formidable teacher. Ingres’s innovation, she argues, lies in his use of material objects to disrupt the conventions of narrative. His attention to stuff in his historical paintings and in his portraits creates meaning in non-linear ways. “In the pictorial structure of Ingres’s works,” she tells us, “narrative relinquishes its inevitability and its hold on actors and objects, and objects begin to speak in terms of their poetic and historical associations” (238). Siegfried also argues that Ingres destabilized the gendered dichotomies of Davidian art, undermining the heroic male body and focusing attention on the female nude (5). Without abandoning the antique, or, for that matter, history painting, Ingres combined an obsession with material goods with a penchant for stories of irrational passion, replacing the solemn civic virtues of David with two eminently nineteenth-century preoccupations: sex and shopping.

The “painting reimagined” of the book’s title thus refers both to Ingres’s own inventive capacities and his contribution to a longer story about the nineteenth-century abandonment of history painting in favor of contemporary non-narrative subject matter. Chapter 1, “Ingres’s Reading,” introduces Siegfried’s concept of post-narrative painting. Ingres’s history painting, according to Siegfried, depended not on the unified compositions dear to his teacher David and his more conventional students, but rather on the use of the “motif”: objects that emblematize the figures’ (and readers’) emotions (52–53). Siegfried presents her argument for Ingres’s unconventional narrative style through sustained analysis of some of his strangest historical paintings: Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808), Roger Freeing Angelica (1819), Paolo and Francesca (1819), and Virgil Reading the “Aeneid” to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia (ca. 1819). Ingres’s formally fragmented paintings affronted contemporary critics used to Davidian unity of space, gesture, and emotion; to late nineteenth-century viewers (and postmodern art historians), the deliberate disunity of Ingres’s narrative paintings seemed thrillingly subversive.

Chapter 2, “The ‘Imaginary’ of the Female Nudes and Portraits,” continues to build the case for Ingres’s objects and stuffs as conveyers of meaning, and supports Siegfried’s claims about Ingres’s reworking of gender dynamics. Siegfried ties the nudes and female portraits to the history and genre paintings by arguing that the relationship between the female figures and the meticulously depicted objects in these compositions suggests a narrative. Through an analysis of the Portrait of Madame Philibert Rivière (1806), the Grande Odalisque (1814), and a selection of female portraits of the 1840s and 1850s, she argues that Ingres’s depiction of objects and clothing complements, and sometimes replaces, the erotic charge of the female body. This strategy creates an open-ended viewer experience, drawing less on classical notions of the representation of the body than on contemporary discourses on fashion and luxury goods. Siegfried’s argument ultimately functions to redeem Ingres’s female bodies for the twenty-first-century viewer uncomfortable with the spineless eroticism of the nudes and the glossy commodification of the portrait sitters.

Siegfried’s third and fourth chapters, “The Vicissitudes of Artistic Ambition” and “Classicism Reconstructed,” interpret four of Ingres’s best-known historical paintings as statements of his aesthetic program: Jupiter and Thetis (1811), Raphael and the Fornarina (1814), Apotheosis of Homer (1827), and Antioche and Stratonice (1840). Chapter 3 considers the two earlier works. Siegfried’s rereading of the Jupiter and Thetis, based on both her (and Ingres’s) close reading of the classical sources and on formal analysis, is particularly persuasive. Ingres, she argues, used the painting both to demonstrate his mastery of Academic norms and to assert his own individuality. The Raphael and the Fornarina, according to Siegfried, restated the artist’s artistic program on a smaller scale. In Ingres’s depiction of his artistic hero, the painter turns from his mistress to gaze at her painted image; Ingres thus privileges art over nature.

Chapter 4 continues the exploration of Ingres’s statement pictures into the later period of his career. Siegfried argues that the Apotheosis of Homer, which was designed as a ceiling for the newly renovated Musée Charles X in the Louvre, is ultimately less about the glorious pedigree of classicism than the vicissitudes of artistic taste and the modern artist’s construction of his own artistic identity. From this very public statement of artistic lineage, Siegfried moves to a private work, the cabinet-sized Antioche and Stratonice, painted in 1840 for the Duc d’Orléans. Despite the impeccably classical subject matter, Siegfried argues, Ingres undermines the conventions of history painting by making the female protagonist’s sexual power, and the elaborate architectural setting, the lynchpins of the narrative. Siegfried’s analysis thus returns to her argument about Ingres’s visual investment in both the female form and in the materiality of objects.

Her next two chapters take on Ingres’s paintings of national and religious history. Chapter 5, “Materials of the Historical Imaginary,” turns from Ingres’s meditations on the ancient world to his engagement with French history, both distant and contemporary. Siegfried, in her analysis of two very different paintings, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806) and Don Pedro of Toledo Kissing the Sword of Henri IV (1819), argues that Ingres’s objects substitute themselves for the conventional terms of historical signification. Chapter 6, “The Materiality of the Sacred,” continues Siegfried’s investigation of painting and materiality with two major religious paintings, Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter (1820) and The Vow of Louis XIII (1824). Each, Siegfried argues, uses the depiction of objects and stuffs to reconstitute Christian narratives for the nineteenth century.

Siegfried’s seventh and final chapter, “A Fractured Climax,” focuses on Ingres’s Martyrdom of Saint Symphorien (1834), a major history painting that is both Christian and classical in its inspiration. Siegfried locates in this painting all of Ingres’s innovative narrative devices—the dispersal of narrative among multiple figures, an emotionally charged female figure, deliberate obscuring of the putative main subject—and sees in Ingres’s aggrieved reaction to its critical failure the “long-standing incongruity in his career between his conception of himself as someone at odds with critics and official institutions and his simultaneous desire to be recognized and appreciated by them as well as by his peers and even the general public” (386).

Siegfried concludes by asserting Ingres’s centrality to nineteenth-century art, despite the idiosyncrasies of his work. She sees Ingres’s stubborn adherence to his own narrative techniques as “symptomatic of a larger, increasingly insistent disjunction between the individual and larger social structures and collective norms.” In other words, the tension between Ingres’s fierce individualism and his desire to produce universally acceptable work is emblematic of the vexed status of the individual in modern culture (374). In the end, Siegfried comes down on the side of nonconformity, arguing that Ingres’s paintings were subversive even if his politics were not.

Ingres: Painting Reimagined is a book about one artist. But Siegfried’s relentless, almost hallucinatory focus on Ingres nonetheless has major implications for the field. Siegfried proposes a new account of nineteenth-century painting, based on Ingres’s reinvention of narrative structure, his embrace of material objects as vehicles of meaning, his overturning of Davidian classicism, and his emphasis on female sexuality. But Ingres was not the only early nineteenth-century painter who relied on meticulous (not to say obsessive) depiction of material objects to convey meaning. How does his approach relate to that of Paul Delaroche or Fleury Richard? And how might Siegfried’s account of Ingres change how we understand narrative and materiality in Realism and Impressionism? While Siegfried leaves these questions open, Ingres: Painting Reimagined will provoke her readers to rethink the history of modernism in the long nineteenth century.

Amy Freund, Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Art, Texas Christian University,

Amy Freund
Associate Professor and Kleinheniz Chair, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University

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); Andrew Carrington Shelton, Ingres and His Critics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Sarah Betzer, Ingres and the Studio: Women, Painting, History (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012). Siegfried’s own contributions include Works by J-A-D Ingres in the Collection of the Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1980 [written with Marjorie B. Cohn]); a special issue of Art History, co-edited with Adrian Rifkin and published under the unfortunate title of Fingering Ingres (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); and Staging Empire: Napoleon, Ingres, and David (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006 [written with Todd Porterfield]).