Under the Brush

Peter Campbell

  • Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch edited by Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee
    Abrams, 500 pp, £55.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 300 08653 9
  • Velázquez: The Technique of Genius by Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido
    Yale, 213 pp, £29.95, November 1998, ISBN 0 300 07293 7

The exhibition at the National Gallery of Ingres’s portraits is both lavish and comprehensive. It also insists that you come to a conclusion about him. To be offered something as complete as this and not sort out your ideas would be slovenly. Which is not to say that it’s easy. The pictures are brilliantly painted, intensely pleasurable – and oppressive. To start with what’s oppressive. In some of the portraits of women the flesh of bare arms and shoulders looks powdered and resilient, as though they were blown up from some specially luxurious surgical rubber and then talcumed. The men meanwhile might have been groomed for the television lights. The finish is smooth, precise and brilliant. The brush-strokes are hardly visible, and you have to look closely to see how the paint was applied. It is as though these people have been expensively transformed by some cosmetic process into Ingres-flesh. And in a way – though Ingres complained that the fees paid for small pictures were not worth the effort – they have been.

If the flesh has become ornamental, then the ornaments have become substantial. There’s no suggestion that they are stage props or something dashed in by a studio assistant (though prodigiously skilful assistants helped with the later portraits, just as Ingres himself did the footstool and candelabra in the unfinished portrait of Madame Récamier when he was a pupil in David’s studio). The objects represented here can be traced from old inventories; indeed, an academic study exists devoted solely to Ingres’s eloquent mantelpieces. He shows not the slightest hint of embarrassment about the material expression of power derived from wealth. And the physicality of it all, of the clothes, the coiled hair and the flesh, makes the pictures sexy in a way you do not expect portraits, particularly society portraits, to be.

These are likenesses, while owing little to the pursuit of fleeting expressions. Ingres’s subjects resembled his pictures of them in the same way that kings resemble their profiles on coins. They are portraits-as-icons. Contemporary critics recognised this, and complained about it as soon as he exhibited his Byzantine-looking Napoleon, seen from the front, in 1806. The opulence of the fabric, ornaments and jewellery, and the way the sitter’s body and face are fitted into a geometry of curves dividing the image into discrete fields (brilliant white neck-cloths against sombre coats and smooth, hothouse flesh; a shawl, a fragment of a cushion, a fan; broadcloth punctuated by a fob) – all this ensures that a portrait by Ingres is an exotic object.

That he painted this way by choice is proved by the exceptions: the early portrait of his much-loved wife (he had proposed by post and was accepted, sight unseen) and the early profile of a boy – almost a sketch – which, when he saw it again late in life, he said was the best thing he had ever done. It is clear also from the drawings: not just the portrait drawings, which were ends in themselves, but the wonderful studies he made in preparation for some of his histories. These, often of nude figures which were later clothed, explore contours with the freedom and delight of a lover’s fingers. The portrait drawings, too, have a spontaneity which was subdued by the discipline of paint. Many were of friends and given as presents, but they kept the wolf from the door in Rome when, with the fall of Napoleon, Ingres lost the patronage of the departing French Imperial administration.

Many of the Grand Tourists who took home an Ingres drawing as a memento were young English men and women. These drawings – of single figures, sister and sister, brother and sister, husband and wife – would make better illustrations to Jane Austen (providing you blot out the occasional scrap of Roman scenery) than the English fashion-plates publishers tend nowadays to turn up. The young people in them look, on the whole, to be lively and agreeable, if sometimes also a bit wet or pompous. And he was wonderfully good on the frocks, which Jane Austen would have liked. In fact, he got an invitation to visit England to do portraits – he could have given us the Court of George IV just as his hero Holbein gave us that of Henry VIII – but he saw history painting as a duty and he rejected the invitation with disdain.

The transformation that Ingres worked on flesh does not obliterate personality. M. Bertin, the journalist, hands on knees – almost, but not quite on the point of rising – is a tremendous presence, as are the jolie-laide Comtesse de Tournon, the amused, smug, perhaps not altogether nice Mme de Haussonville (we have her own word for that: she wrote of her young self that ‘there were two persons inside me, the good and the evil, and the evil usually overcame the good’) and Baronne James de Rothschild, who surprises you by her modern face, handsome, but also intelligent and amusing. In their own terms, these are almost faultless.

Ingres's portrait of the Comtess de Tournon, 1812
Ingres's portrait of the Comtess de Tournon, 1812

Portraiture is an anxious craft, however, and Ingres was not the first or the last successful painter to complain about it, saying that it diverted him from serious picture-making. It is the genre which has most regularly made painters rich, or at least offered them a reliable income, but it has also made them vulnerable to criticism of a kind which cannot be put down to differences in taste – everyone, after all, reckons to be able to judge a likeness. You can see why even successful portraitists might tire of the job.

Although, in the end, he became exceptionally choosy about who he would paint, most of Ingres’s subjects are more famous for being his subjects than for being themselves. One contemporary critic pointed out that the people he painted were somehow less coherent when you met them in the flesh than they were in their portraits. The portraits showed what, had they got themselves together, they might have been.

A great virtue of modern exhibition catalogues is the attention they pay to contemporary reactions. This one makes it clear that what we now admire and dislike in Ingres was, on the whole, admired and disliked from the first. It may be some comfort to Ingres, in whatever houri-filled heaven he occupies, to know that no one today is as rude about him as some of his contemporaries were. This is partly because he worries us less. We know there was no need to feel anxious lest his official successes set a conservative agenda for some future ‘national school’ of painting. But the oddities which characterise his style – and which distinguish his kind of realism from that of the daguerreotype or photograph – stood out as clearly, perhaps even more clearly, when the pictures were new.

We are now so used to distortion that arbitrary adjustments of the anatomy (like the dropped shoulder which makes Mme de Haussonville’s arm seem to come from halfway down her chest) may disturb us less than they did his contemporaries. They were struck, on the other hand, as we are, by the light, both flat and lurid, which suggests in many of the early male portraits that a storm is going to break at any moment. Critics commented also on the lack of colour in the male portraits, and on the vivid greens and pinks in the women’s frocks in the later female ones.

The history paintings are hard to take but the odalisques, bathers and Venuses are still ravishing (well, they ravish me). Renaissance painters used geometrical formulae to convey the beauty of bodies, but no thing could be further from Dürer’s grids and tables than Ingres’s soft, twining, plastic girls, with their curved fingers and swan necks. They are rather tired, but they are not so much dreamers as figments of dreams, faces that have been given imagined bodies.

Many of the studies for the female portraits are of nude models, meaning that the final pose was worked out in flesh other than that of the sitter. Even in the drawings he adjusts the body to the picture space so as to satisfy his need for a flow of curves. Thus, Madame Moitessier in her tent of flowered silk becomes an element in a two-dimensional pattern and the parts of the picture surface fit tightly and smoothly together, like those of a machine. Some elements (the shawl in the early portrait of Mme Rivière) take on the qualities that a piece of newspaper has in a Cubist collage. Picasso, indeed, had a productive relationship with Ingres, responding among other things to the style of the portrait drawings, which was established right from the start. Here, the faces are shaded and the nuanced rendering of flesh contrasts wonderfully with the sharp, absolutely direct strokes which describe lace, silk, coats, trousers, jewellery and furniture. The articulation of the body beneath may sometimes get lost, but the assurance of the performance is breathtaking.

For all that he looked for inspiration in ancient art (or, more often, versions of ancient art like Flaxman’s engravings), Ingres was entirely unembarrassed by modern fashion. His wife had been a dressmaker. He records the progress of fashion: from the pretty, high-waisted Empire styles of the Roman portraits to Mme Marcotte’s rather horrid, mid-century, brown dress, from styles which cover bodies to styles which shape them. His profligacy with information helps to explain the inordinate length of time some pictures took to complete – Mme Moitessier was 12 years under the brush. There is more there to be seen than can be taken in at a normal viewing distance; you have to move in close. This Holbeinesque way of making pictures requires tremendous skill, even if it is not as magical as the kind of painting which creates just as great a sense of reality only with less labour.

To understand the difference between portraits which are performances and those, like Ingres’s, which are powerful machines, you have only to go upstairs in the National Gallery and walk along the row of portraits by Velázquez. With Ingres as you get closer there is an increase of information but the mystery goes. Get close to a portrait by Velázquez and the mystery deepens. How could he modulate a single stroke so that it reads as the shape of an eyelid and registers the change of light as the form recedes from you? You see what has been achieved, but it is harder to imagine Velázquez making his mark than it is to imagine Ingres touching in one of his smooth cheeks.

Velázquez: The Technique of Genius is an illuminating introduction to what can be learnt from the surface of the pictures. (Both authors have written at length about Velázquez in other places.) It is built round illustrations of details, nearly all from paintings in the Prado. Here Jonathan Brown, his biographer, reduces the life to Vasari-scale and Carmen Garrido, an expert on technique and materials, explains the nature of single works.

Velázquez is a wonderful subject for this sort of scrutiny. The paintings are remarkably uncompromised either by restoration or the effects of time, and X-rays or photographs by infra-red or ultraviolet light some times show first thoughts which lie under second thoughts. As virtually no drawings have survived, it is only by looking below the surface that you get to understand how he adjusted his compositions. But the best reason for looking at his pictures from close-to is to get to know the astonishing economy and variety of the marks he used. It’s not the case, as it is with Vermeer, that to go very close is to see what you saw before – a smooth, uniform surface, as anonymous as a projection on ground glass. Velázquez’s surface is strikingly various – a lively calligraphy in which each stroke is adapted to its purpose. There are marks for flames, for cheeks, for gleams on armour and sparkles on braid. As you retreat, each mark takes on the look of the thing it stands for – shadow or highlight, a glint in the eye or a spaniel’s curls – and does it so completely that you find your self moving forward again to check which mark it is that carries the information.

I imagine that each stroke must have been monitored in two ways. First, in relation to the look of the thing being painted; second, in relation to its effect as part of the picture. This way of working, with its constant moving back and forth between looking at the subject, painting and looking at what has been painted, has neither the intellectual grandeur of Raphael’s calculated campaigns nor the exuberance of Rubens’s inventions (or the geometrical energy of Ingres’s shapes). Verisimilitude ties an artist to ways of painting which, even when he’s working from imagination, rely on the skill of the transcription. The reward is a vivacity which informs both the image – the face and body of the subject – and the brush-strokes themselves: the delicious elisions of light-to-shadow when one colour is painted into another along a jaw-line, the running twist of a single stroke which makes a ribbon, the broken touches which make lace out of blobs and lines of thick white paint.

Although Velázquez is said to have made drawings from Raphael when in Rome, and although contact with Rubens – when Rubens was in Madrid on a diplomatic mission in 1628 – seems to have been crucial in the transformation of the provincial painter from Seville into the master of the royal portraits, his way of working has more in common with that of the bourgeois Frans Hals than with that of either of those masters of a narrative, textually rich art. Indeed, Velázquez’s kind of representation is inimical to narrative. His greatest invention – Las Meninas – derives its force, in part at least, from the sense that we have come upon something which is unexplained but meaningfully obscure. Although there are endless readings of it, its force would be diminished if any one of them asserted itself unequivocally. If an Ingres portrait is a bit like a machine, one by Velázquez is like a living thing.

Painting a portrait in the direct, economical manner of Velázquez or Hals, or of those artists who learnt from them like Manet and Sargent, is about as close to a dramatic performance as painting can get. It must be carried off within a more or less defined period of time; and there is even an audience – of at least one. Moreover, Velázquez’s painting – most of it direct – attains its masterful ease by risking failure. This is painting in which the distinction between sketch and finished work dissolves; as Carmen Garrido says, Las Meninas ‘can be thought of as the largest oil sketch ever painted’. The progress from sketch to final version – except when the sketch is a cursory shorthand for a pose or grouping – is likely to see losses which cancel out any gains in finish and authority. (To be fair, there is a story about Ingres leaving his studio and crying out with rage and despair in the room next door when he was unable to get the likeness he was after. But the appearance of riskless perfection which marks, say, the portrait of M. Bertin cuts us off from the tension which invests direct painting.)

A painting of a face is never the plain truth. It can suggest characteristics – beauty, pomposity, mendacity – which have only a contingent relationship with the raw material. Sometimes, the transformation is a feat of imagination on the part of the painter. If we knew Charles I from newsreel footage, he would hardly come to mind in the romantic or dignified way he does in memories informed by Van Dyck’s portraits. Sometimes, the painter makes play with conventions about how the body is held, how it is clothed, what kinds of expression are considered appropriate. Velázquez’s paintings cannot be separated from conditions at the Spanish Court in the 17th century any more than Ingres’s can from conditions in 19th-century France. The age makes a contribution, and portrait painters may do so too – I imagine that the way a late 19th-century heiress sat on a sofa was not uninfluenced by Boldini or Sargent – but even the great flatterers had to have something to build on. Sargent’s American women can seem stiff, almost gauche: different from their European sisters, who sit comfortably and are liable to swan or lean.

Distance marks Velázquez’s court portraits. Painter, subject and viewer are all strangers to each other and his technique makes you constantly aware of the need to stand back from the canvas and of the physical distance between the painter and the work as he made it. This distancing is symbolic of his social situation, for his life can be read as an attempt to reduce the distance separating an artisan such as himself and an aristocrat. Jonathan Brown begins his biographical essay with the assertion that ‘The life and career of Diego Velázquez revolved around a weighty dilemma – how could he reconcile his artistic genius with a powerful desire to attain lofty social status?’ His family were gentry but the patronage of the Count-Duke of Olivares brought him to Court, where he rose both as a painter and as a functionary. His ambition to be come a member of one of the military orders was eventually realised in 1658, a couple of years before he died, but only after two Papal dispensations.

Contemporaries said that Velázquez lacked imagination and you can see their point. You could set his classical subjects – there are only a few – up on a stage. In the picture of Vulcan’s forge, painted on his first journey to Italy in 1629-30, the figures are enclosed by the walls of a small room. Apollo, who has dropped in to tell tales on Mars and Venus, stands solidly on the ground; the wreaths of tumbling astronaut-cherubs which Tintoretto and Rubens would have had climbing the sky, are on holiday: even Velázquez’s gods are earth-bound. This is the case both early and late. The picture of Mars painted at the end of his life looks like what it doubtless is – a tough old man dressed up in studio props. His face is almost hidden by the heavy shadow of his helmet; he is in no way a god. Yet there is no obvious reason to think that irony is intended. All Velázquez could do, his critics might say, was paint what was in front of him.

Realism of this kind depends on direct painting. The portrait painters famous for telling likenesses – Titian, Velázquez, Hals – have not left many drawings. Those, like Holbein and Ingres, who have left elaborate studies for portraits or finished portrait drawings convince us that they are trying for a more solid truth than one of fleeting appearance – a truth which can only be watched for. This is why portraitists of the painterly kind are so often recorded as wiping their canvases clean and starting again. The freshness of the strokes, the appearance of effortlessness, is essential if they are to achieve their end. And it may come almost by chance: indeed, the sketch which works is often more striking than anything finished – the portrait of Vernon Lee which Sargent threw off in a couple of hours is admired more than many of his full-dress numbers.

Anything which interrupts the pure business of transcription, any attempt to do it from memory, will take away some of the freshness. It’s not surprising that among Velázquez’s most assured pictures are those of the court dwarves – social distance perhaps removes anxiety. The miraculous short hand which turns the eyes into dark pits, lid and pupil hardly distinguishable, and which reads as a living glance, is not matched even in the most assured of the royal portraits.

It seems there is a choice to be made. Vasari reports Michelangelo as saying that Titian was a wonderful painter but how much better if he’d had a firm grounding in drawing. Yet a preliminary drawing pre-empts the thought about form which is expressed in the gradation of tones and the juxtaposition of tints. The painter who is just a recording machine will fail when thought rather than arrangement is called for. Compare Las Meninas with Rubens’s picture of Loyola casting out devils.

The introductory essay in the Ingres catalogue claims that portrait-painting is on the rise – citing, among others, Chuck Close, and showing one of Cindy Sherman’s pictures of herself in Ingres-like drapes. But these photographs or photo-based images depend on sheer size or ironic quotation for their effects – they are almost as much glosses on the old art of portraiture as a continuation of it. Perhaps the only image-makers who deal in the human face and are not avowed traditionalists, but who would be recognised as doing the same thing in the same way as it has always been done, are caricaturists. Daumier would find common cause with Steve Bell or David Levine; Ingres would stomp from the room faced by Cindy Sherman (but then he wouldn’t look at his Romantic contemporaries either).

Technology has marginalised portrait painters. Like the makers of clockwork watches, they serve only the luxury end of the market. The equivalent of the Grand Tourists whom Ingres drew in Rome now have their own cameras and portraiture’s death by a million snapshots has freed painters from the burden of face-painting about which they so often complained. The trouble is finding another genre which can make the same demands on the artist’s highest skills.