Madame Moitessier by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1856)

When Ingres was informed by a friend that a certain Madame Moitessier of Paris wanted her portrait painted, the artist quickly rebuffed the proposal. Trained under the great David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres possessed what would today be described as ‘a complex’; he believed that his artistic skills were too exceptional to be used for mere portraiture. Reflective, he believed, of his talent, Ingres preferred to paint the great scenes of history; gods, battles, and revelation.

It was only by chance, at a dinner, that Inés de Moitessier appeared in person before the artist. Her beauty was well-known in Parisian high society, and Ingres was equally captivated. In November 1844, the artist commenced work on Madame Moitessier.

In its exquisite detail, it is evident that Ingres was truly enchanted by the beauty of Inés Moitessier. Notice how skilfully the artist manipulates light and shadow to highlight the gentle curvature of the shoulder and neck. Indeed, by placing a mirror behind Madame Moitessier, Ingres enabled himself to subtly expose more angles of the face and skin of the woman who he himself referred to as “la belle et bonne” (the beautiful and the good).

With extraordinary precision, Ingres depicted rich textiles and gems adorning the voluptuous form of his subject. From her elaborate dress to the fine stones of her trinkets, it is clear that Moitessier was exceptionally wealthy. Her nonchalantly placed index finger and reclined pose are suggestive of a content arrogance. Gently rouged cheeks flush the otherwise smooth, alabaster form of the sitter. Young, beautiful, Madame Moitessier seems to be the perfect portrait of bourgeoise satisfaction.

Yet in art, as in reality, our first impressions are often misleading. Although the Madame Moitessier of November 1844 certainly would have looked much like the lady you see before you, Ingres did not actually complete the portrait until December 1856. A series of personal tragedies for the both artist and subject delayed its completion for twelve years, and towards the end of this period, Ingres painted more from memory than from reality. As such, the lady who today hangs in the National Gallery in London is much more an expression of the artists imagination than a genuine representation of Inés Moitessier.


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