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A Look Back at Ingres

At the end of the 18th century, any ambitious artist—and anyone else wealthy and curious enough to embark on the grand tour—hoped to pass some time in the Eternal City. They came to Rome to admire the manly beauty of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, to measure the grace of Raphael's frescoes, to enjoy the wit of Bernini's fountains, and to encounter Caravaggio's boldly theatrical paintings. Above all, they came to marvel at the powerful but mute remains of imperial Rome—from the half-buried ruins of the Forum to the nearly intact Pantheon.

J.A.D. Ingres, one of the greatest of all French painters, was nothing if not ambitious. After first setting foot in the city in 1806 as a winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, Ingres stayed on for 14 years, and returned in triumph to be director of the French Academy at the Villa Medici from 1834 until 1841. Yet he always remained a foreigner. During his long sojourns in Rome he executed nearly a score of portraits in oil and hundreds in pencil on paper—universally considered supreme achievements of the genre—but he portrayed only other foreigners. Arriving with the legion of French administrators sent by Napoleon to occupy Rome in the early 19th century, Ingres depicted them, their families, and fellow artists. When the French were expelled with the fall of Napoleon in 1814, Ingres soon became the favored portraitist of the new occupying force—the British tourists who for 20 years had been banned from the peninsula by Napoleon.

Ingres often worked vignettes of Rome into the backgrounds of his portraits. Amazingly, it is still possible to see Ingres's Rome, to consult the same guidebooks, lodge on the same streets, and frequent the same cafés. In fact, the massive restoration of the city's public buildings in preparation for the Holy Year 2000 means that Ingres's Rome can now be appreciated anew. For the first time in this century, we can see what the tourists saw in his day: that the papal splendors of Renaissance and Baroque Rome were meant to outshine the imperial Rome of antiquity. Today Rome is once again emerging as a gleaming white city on seven fabled hills.

Ingres's first impressions of Rome were not favorable. "How I hate this city of Rome, beautiful as it is in some ways," he wrote a friend. "All and everything is provincial by comparison with the metropolis of Paris." Slowly he was seduced. Ingres's unease soon gave way to a full-blown love affair with his adopted city, one so powerful that he renounced his engagement to a beautiful and rich Parisian artist in order to stay. "I'd have to be blind not to admit that [Rome] has an atmosphere and is a city of inexhaustible beauties of all kinds. . . . It is a veritable Babylon."

When Ingres first came to Rome, the French Academy had just moved to the Villa Medici, a grand Renaissance palace with a superb garden and extraordinary views, only a short stroll from the Spanish Steps. (Although they were not built until the 1720's, the steps became an icon of Rome and the focal point of the foreign community. Ingres always lived nearby, and his portraits often depicted views of—or from—them.)

After his four-year fellowship at the Villa Medici came to an end, Ingres began to undertake portraits in paint and pencil of Napoleon's new meritocracy of talented administrators. It enabled him to stay in Rome—and to ingratiate himself with a powerful elite. Many of Ingres's sitters came to him on the recommendation of Charles Marcotte, an official in the department of forests and waterways who was the subject of a simple but commanding portrait. Joseph-Antoine Moltedo, director of the postal system, is pictured before the Colosseum, much as a modern tourist might insist on being photographed today. More sinister is the tight-lipped portrait of Jacques Marquet, Baron de Montbreton de Norvins, the chief of police, who glances suspiciously at the viewer. At the summit of French society in Rome sat the Comtesse de Tournon, the mother of the prefect. Ingres's portrait of her—wig, wart, and all—was described by art historian Walter Friedlaender as a "pitiless description of a forceful and witty ugliness." More than anything else, it seems, sitters wanted a convincing likeness.

In the spring of 1814, Ingres traveled to Naples to paint Napoleon's sister Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples. His portrait shows the vain and beautiful queen dressed in black, dutifully observing the mourning mandated by Napoleon upon the death of Empress Josephine, even though Caroline despised her. Wearing diamonds and pearl earrings (the only jewels allowed in mourning, since they have no color), she stands coyly before her window, through which her pet volcano, Vesuvius, is visible. Ingres would not have known, but Caroline and her husband had just signed a treaty with Napoleon's enemies, England and Austria, giving the couple control of the Papal States. But Napoleon had the last laugh, releasing Pope Pius VII from his exile in France to reclaim his throne in Rome. Although the Murats tried to regain the favor of Napoleon, their reign fell to a popular rebellion. Joachim was executed; Caroline escaped to Trieste; the French imperial administration—Ingres's entire clientele—was expelled from Italy.

"The fall of the Murat family in Naples," Ingres wrote a friend, "has ruined me with paintings that were lost or sold without payment. This has completely deranged my little household." But as the French Empire collapsed, order suddenly returned to Rome. British tourists, denied the sun of Italy for nearly 20 years, flocked to the Eternal City. Thanks to ragazzi who were paid a commission, these tourists were soon knocking at Ingres's door at 34 Via Gregoriana, just down the street from the Villa Medici. Ingres supported his little household by drawing hundreds of pencil portraits.

Who were these visitors to Rome?One British writer commented in 1825 that in Rome one found travelers of "all classes, ages, sexes, and conditions . . . assembled together; the first of our nobility with the last of our citizens . . . crossing and justling each other in every corner; talking, writing, wondering, displaying, and rhapsodizing: lion-hunting, husband-hunting, time-killing, money-spending, view-taking, and book-making . . . English, in short, of every kind and description—high and low—wise and foolish—rich and poor—black, brown, and fair."

If, in the 18th century, the goal of a trip to Rome was to connect intellectually with the classical past, in the 19th century tourists sought to experience the sublime, Byronic sensations so tantalizingly described in Romantic literature. In Corinne, a wildly popular 1807 novel that Trollope often observed in the hands of tourists, Madame de Staël contrasts the insensitive d'Erfeuil, who "did [his] best to find something interesting in those ruins," with Corinne, who opined that "Eyes are all-powerful over the soul: Once you have seen Roman ruins, you believe in the ancient Romans as if you had lived among them." Foreigners traveling to Rome suddenly felt the need to be instructed how they should feel, not just informed about what they were looking at.

Ingres portrayed a few British aristocrats—ambassadors and such—but most of his clients, like most of the tourists, were middle-class. This was an entirely new phenomenon. One of them was Mrs. Charles Badham, the wife of a doctor. While in Rome, they rented an apartment a few doors down from Ingres and commissioned what was to become one of the artist's greatest drawings. Even more impressive is the group portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Woodhead and Mrs. Woodhead's brother Henry Comber. The elaborate froggings of Mr. Comber's frock coat suggest that his costume may well be Italian, though most 19th-century guidebooks recommended that travelers outfit themselves in London or Paris. Indeed, it was the extravagance of their clothing that made English tourists so easy to spot: the French writer Joseph Méry remarked that "the English are the only travelers that visit ruins in ball gowns." They were conspicuous not only in dress, but in number. At a ceremony at the Sistine Chapel in 1817, Stendhal noted that among the spectators were 200 ladies. "This number included two fair creatures from Rome itself, five from Germany and one hundred ninety from England . . . I am indeed making an English Journey," he moaned, "without ever setting foot beyond the bounds of Italy."

What did these tourists do when not sitting for Ingres?Just what we do today. They crawled through the Forum, which was then covered in 12 feet of silt. When the weather was inclement, they took their exercise in the vast reaches of St. Peter's. Nature lovers visited the princely parks: as Henry James put it, "a different villa for . . . every day in the week. The Doria, the Ludovisi, the Medici, the Albani, the Wolkonski, the Chigi, the Mellini, the Massimo—there are more of them, with all their sights and sounds and odours and memories, than you have senses for." Art lovers visited the Pio-Clementine Museum at the Vatican, to which the masterpieces looted by Napoleon, such as the Apollo Belvedere, had recently been returned. They flocked to Michelangelo's extraordinary murals in the Sistine Chapel, then blackened with soot, now splendid in their refound color. They went to the Palazzo dei Conservatori at the Campidoglio, where Murat first saw Ingres's paintings, and where today the famous Etruscan she-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus.

More-ambitious travelers obtained letters of introduction to see the art collections of the Roman alphabet of families, at the Albani, Barberini, Borghese, Chigi, Colonna, Corsini, Doria-Pamphilj, Farnese, Giustiniani, Ludovisi, Mattei, Rospigliosi, and Spada palazzi. Today, without letters, we can visit the splendid Villa Borghese, with its breathtaking collection of works by Caravaggio and Bernini; or the Villa Chigi, with its newly restored frescoes by Raphael; or the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, one of the largest palaces in Europe, with its impressive collection of paintings; or the Museo Napoleonico, with paintings and mementos evocative of the occupation of Rome by the Bonapartes.

After 1816, Ingres declined to portray ordinary tourists. The Comte de Blacas, the ambassador of the new French king, Louis XVIII, provided the artist with commissions for paintings to decorate the French church of Santissima TrinitÀ dei Monti, and thereby "restored the brush to his hand," as Ingres put it. Legend has it that one day an English tourist knocked on Ingres's door and asked, "Is this where the portrait draftsman lives?" "No," Ingres replied. "The person who lives here is a painter."

GARY TINTEROW is Engelhard Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch" will be on view from October 5 to January 2, 2000.

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