It’s the clothes that won’t let the eye alone. Lustrous white silk blazoned with fat clusters of pink, red, violet bouquets. Blue fronds and leaves, crystalline as the colors on Chinese porcelain, speckled across the frock. A lace chemise fills a plunging neckline, its delicate tracery offsetting the crisp texture of the multihued brocade. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Madame Moitessier” (1856) is a portrait of the most aggressively patterned, restless dress ever fixed on canvas.
The fabric surges across half the picture. Ingres paints it in a triangle of light, against a gilt and ormolu interior in shadow shadow. Through the latest fashion, a Second Empire crinoline, he claims bourgeois grandeur as heir to the antique muses: Inès Moitessier, a banker’s wife, seated on her throne-like rose settee, is as coolly impassive as the goddess in the Herculaneum fresco on whom Ingres modeled her pose, hand on head, finger pointing to temple.
Baudelaire thought Ingres’s smooth surfaces suffocatingly perfect, but here the effect is barely contained energy. The custom’s fizzing tonalities echo in Moitessier’s alabaster shoulders and arms, sparkled with purple gems, and in the blush rising to the cheeks — a shiver of sex.
These undertones burst into the open when Pablo Picasso, divided the basic structure of Madame Moitessier into dazzling of saturated color in “Woman with a Book” (1932 the loveliest and most lyrical of his numerous depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walter. Housed at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, this picture was the missing jewel from the crown of Tate’s momentous Picasso 1932 exhibition in 2018. Now it comes to London for the National Gallery’s tiny, stunning (and free) Picasso Ingres: Face to Face — just two paintings: a ravishing duet of allusion, distortion, rivalry and pure decorative beauty.
Of Picasso’s many disruptive homages to Ingres, master of line and classical serenity, this is the most direct and revealing. The pair have never been exhibited together before.
Picasso’s young mistress has green-pink hair, a rose-tinted moon face even more inscrutable than Moitessier’s and fingers pointing to her head that an early critic likened to octopus tentacles. She is dreamy and pliant; her dress swirls and disturbs. Picasso simplifies Ingres’s flowers into pinwheels, blue on white, white on blue, stamped on enormous bouffant sleeves, ballooning off the armchair. The chemise is a frothy interlaced black number, unveiling not concealing big white spherical breasts. Cartoonish red button nipples imitate the orange studs on the chair. The crinoline’s tassels and fringes transform into free-flowing voluptuous ornamentation.
The paint, splashy impasto, crusty blots of sprinkled colour, draws attention to itself and to the flattened cubist design: the body dismembered then reassembled in blocks of colour, like a jigsaw — lilac triangle for a shoulder, dusty green funnel for the neck. It is the opposite of Ingres’s flawless realism, his belief that “however skilful, the touch should not be visible, it hinders the illusion”.
Yet in a disorienting move, Ingres smashes illusion anyway: in her mirror, he depict Moitessier in brilliant congruent, impossible reflection — in profile, like the face on a Roman coin — highlighting her outfit from the back, a flamboyant coiled pink headdress.
Picasso picks up the play. The equivalent mirror in “Woman with a Book” contains a fragmented white head, like a stone sculpture, suggesting his own features — a ghostly voyeur.
What illusions were these two old men really painting as they enclosed and displayed gorgeous young women in confections of color and texture? Moitessier and Walter were both 23 when their portraits were begun. Picasso was 50. Ingres, after struggling with his picture of him, was 76 when he completed it.
Each artist found in his model a long-sought ideal. For Picasso, Walter’s mobile, muscular features, blank expression, athletic body, blond bobbed hair were elements to be endlessly manipulated and reshaped: they urged the exhilarating reconfiguration of space itself, everything curvilinear and fluid, in his paintings of her dela. The freedom and erotic delight made Picasso at 50, facing mortality, imagine himself immortal: “God is really only another artist. He just keeps on trying other things. First he works from nature, then he tries abstraction. Finally he winds up lying around caressing his models.”
Ingres, when Paul-Sigisbert Moitessier approached him for a portrait of his wife, was initially lofty; his concerns were history painting, or nudes in orientalist harems such as “The Turkish Bath”. Then he met Inès and in her majestic looks and bearing her saw a living embodiment of her beloved classical archetypes. To translate that into a contemporary setting was the challenge.
Political regimes came and went — France changed from monarchy to republic to empire, hardened revolution and a Napoleonic coup in the dozen years Ingres worked on the little room of the picture. A Moitessier baby, supposed to be included, grew up and was removed from the composition. At year seven, Monsieur Moitessier lost patience and, to satisfy him, in a few months Ingres dashed off a grandiloquent portrait of Madame Moitessier standing, in evening dress, roses in her dark hair — statuesque as the goddess Juno whom she evokes. It left artist and sitter free to continue at leisure the seated portrait which has “too long tormented us both”, as Ingres told her.
Only in the final sessions did he change the dress from monochrome yellow to the lavish Lyons silk creation which animates the picture and gives Moitessier, now 35, imperious authority. At this late stage too Ingres added his dela affectionate message — a little gilded Cupid blows her a kiss.
There is social chronicle here: Arsène Houssaye editor of the Paris magazine L’Artiste, argued that Second Empire women “emancipated themselves, knew the power of money, used it to the hilt . . . One has to see them making fun of women as they used to be: obedient, servile, in the shadows. Those days are over.” But Ingres, read through Picasso, also says something, beyond conspicuous consumption, about the future of portraiture. The inversion of importance between figure and ornament declares artifice, heralds modernism’s pictorial games — as happens in “Woman with a Book”.
Each painting here helps us understand the other, and processes of art history — how innovation builds on tradition; that new works alter how we see the past.
The show also sends us back to highlights in the collection — Ingres’s “Monsieur de Norvins” especially, a Colin Firth as Mr Darcy lookalike, all pent-up feeling behind reserved manner — and to Tate’s great 1932 Picasso painting of Walter, “Nude Woman in a Red Armchair”.
Picasso Ingres is a beacon. Post-pandemic austerity and carbon demands will increasingly make such small shows the museum reality; at this quality, they are as rewarding and thought-provoking as blockbusters.
National Gallery to October 9, nationalgallery.org.uk
Norton Simon Museum October 21-January 30 2023, nortonsimon.org