Tucked away in the triangular Lehman Wing, at the far west side of the Metropolitan Museum, is one of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s most stunning portraits. Its subject is wealthy, aristocratic beauty Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825-1860), Princesse de Broglie.
For Ingres and his contemporaries, this portrait was, by definition, not a great work of art. The Académie des Beaux-Arts ran the annual Salon, the one and only painting exhibition in France. Its members and their pupils were “encouraged” by their sponsor, the French government, to produce didactic paintings and sculptures that would teach the French people to be patriotic and pious. The subjects of choice for such paintings were moralizing narratives from Greek, Roman, and French history. For a century and a half, the most lucrative commissions in France went to painters who produced such government-approved “history paintings.” Ingres’s Vow of Louis XIII earned him great acclaim at the 1824 Salon and made him one of France’s leading painters.
Painting portraits, landscapes, and still lifes was a mundane, unprestigious way to supplement income between history paintings. Ingres’s steady income came from doing fabulous portraits of France’s rich and famous.
The Princesse de Broglie, one of his last portraits, is characteristic of his work. The face is immediately recognizable. The anatomy is believable, but in the details a bit distorted: the arms and hands, for example, are so elegantly lacking in bone and muscle that they seem barely able to hold a fan. The colors are unusual and the textures are lush. The depth behind the sitter is cut off, eliminating distractions, focusing our attention on the details of pose (look at those rhythmic curves!), costume, and accessories that reveal this woman’s character.
But Ingres was not merely highly competent at faces and frou-frou. He was an academically trained, highly skilled artist. Below is one of his preparatory sketches for this portrait, showing that he had considered exactly what the body enveloped in the hoop skirt was doing. The model was a professional, not the Princesse de Broglie – hence the lack of detail on the face.
- To pay his bills as a student in Rome, Ingres did some 450 pencil sketches of wealthy foreigners touring the city. This pencil portrait, also at the Metropolitan Museum, was sketched almost forty years before he painted Princesse de Broglie.
- Recommended for great illustrations of Ingres’s portraits: the exhibition catalogue Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch, ed. Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee (Metropolitan Museum and Harry N. Abrams, 1999).
- This short video from the Khan Academy shows the Princesse de Broglie in the Lehman Collection and discusses some of its details.
- On changes in French art during the 19th century, including the change from government sponsorship to galleries and private collectors, and the changes that resulted, see Seismic Shifts in Subject and Style: 19th-Century French Painting.
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