A current exhibition gives a close look at the technique of one of the most revered artists in the history of drawing and provides an occasion to learn from his example.
An exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum, in New York City, spotlights the drawings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, one of the most revered of all draftsmen. The works on display, all pulled from The Morgan’s collection, reinforce just how accomplished with a pencil Ingres really was, especially in the realm of portraiture.
Aspiring artists are often told to look to the masters for instruction. Indeed, if we can tell how and why a drawing by a master is beautiful, it may represent an important step toward creating significant work of our own. But this is easier said than done. When confronted with hundreds of masterworks in a museum or art-history book, all of which are dauntingly accomplished, where does one start?
In this case, we start with Ingres. Drawing turned to several expert artists, teachers, and writers and asked them to break down a few lessons that can be learned from studying the portraits in this exhibition. Their insightful comments reveal much about the inner workings of these drawings and are full of practical lessons about composition, linework, and other subjects important to any artist’s practice.
All artwork this article collection The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, New York.
A Function for Every Line
by Mark Tennant
Ingres’ drawings contain an overall unity of execution but a real diversity of edge and line quality, and every line in Ingres’ drawings has a function and is thoroughly thought out. He uses a variety of tone and texture, among other things, to hold the eye near the focal point of a drawing.
For example, in Portrait of Guillaume Guillon Lethière, Ingres skillfully uses numerous design and rendering decisions to direct the viewer’s attention upward to the focal point of the image, where that emotion is conveyed. The naturalness of the arms and hands holding the hat provide Ingres with an opportunity to use two arcs that guide our eyes to Lethière’s head. The vertical center line of the head is the darkest value in the drawing, and the area under the nose and inside the eye sockets are drawn with sharpness and clarity. Ingres uses contrast to advance the nose forward and push the receding planes of jaw line and temples back.
Ingres takes extreme care not to dwell in the areas that could distract for any length of time. Moving away from the center of the head, the lines grow progressively lighter. In the areas far from the head and cape, he uses lighter values and sketchlike lines. The values on the right side of the head are darker than those on the left (although not as dark as under the nose) and cause the viewer’s eyes to travel around the head. Using the circular shapes of the collar shoulder, and lapels as a guide, Ingres holds the viewer in this area of the drawing.
The light source allowed the artist to use two significant cast shadows: under the nose and on the collar of the outer coat behind the head. These shapes, which have similar angles, emphasize the diagonal thrust of the entire composition. Ingres suggests a background tone at the lower section of the drawing that repeats the overall diagonal shape, and the tone is made of parallel diagonal lines – much like the pose itself.
Precision, Clarity, and Modeling
by Kenneth J. Procter
By precision I mean that he took great pains to delineate the exact shape of a facial feature. Frau Reinhold’s mouth is not just any mouth, it is Frau Reinhold’s particular mouth. Particular makes likeness. And when likeness matters, artists focus on the face; likeness of clothing can be much more approximate.
Clarity refers to degree of finish. Compare the face of Charles-Désiré Norry to his jacket. Each feature of the face is finished with an undisputable boundary, whereas some jacket contours are sketched with more than one line and still look preliminary. Ingres could have brought more clarity to the jacket, but he didn’t need it there. Moreover, varying the degree of clarity in a portrait is true to perception. It makes the figure into an interesting landscape. (And if you can get drapery nearly right with your first quick lines, why hide your virtuoso performance?)
Finally, modeling brings facial features into relief. Modeling just one section of a composition adds to the drawing’s focus and variety, but it risks disunity. In his portrait of Lord Glenbervies, shadows cascade from the profile down the linear rumples of the far sleeve. By creating transitions between the modeled and linear sections, Ingres unified his landscape of styles.
Observation, Delicacy, and Selectivity
by John A. Parks
Few artists have ever appeared in the world with such an abundance of gifts as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. A student of neoclassical master Jacques- Louis David, Ingres saw himself as a preserver of the pictorial values of the High Renaissance. While working in Rome in the early 19th century, the artist began to execute small-scale portrait drawings to help make ends meet. He greatly resented this work, but these drawings are regarded today as some of his finest productions.
Ingres’ portrait of Lady Glenbervie is typical of this body of work. It pictures a woman who was considered somewhat less than beautiful, and she certainly has none of the stylish command that many of Ingres’ patrons affected. And yet we are immediately engaged by the presence of the woman. Poor in posture, she slumps forward slightly, her face set in an expression of forbearance as she submits to the tedious process of having her portrait done.
Ingres cleverly contrasts the plainness of the woman with the elaborately busy clothing she is wearing. The result is a sense that we are looking at a rather humble person trapped in a social role to which she is, perhaps, not well-suited. It is a narrative that creates empathy with the subject and betrays a warmth of insight that makes us feel close to the artist, too.
How does Ingres pull this off with just a simple pencil drawing? First, it is evident that the artist has taken the trouble to really observe his sitter. He has thought about her as a person, how she comes off in a social situation, how she wears her clothes, and what level of self-assurance she has. He has then trusted his eye in observing her, setting aside all the grand conventions of neo-classicism to track the specific proportions and idiosyncrasies of her features. Ingres drew with a delicacy that the then-new medium of pencil had made available to artists for the first time – every line is a caress of the paper. Ingres also uses, to the full, the capacity of pencil to provide different weights of line, varying from delightfully airy suggestions to heavy black accents.
Throughout the piece, Ingres is highly selective in what he chooses to leave in or out. The work follows portraiture convention by focusing its efforts on and around the head, but even there the artist doesn’t include everything. The sitter’s left eye is much more rendered than her right eye, and various parts of the hat are much more finished than others. Ingres instinctively understands that part of the pleasure of drawing is its capacity to suggest rather than to pin everything down. He allows the viewer room to breathe visually.
What can we learn from Ingres’ work? We learn that being selective is more powerful than being all-inclusive. We learn that selectivity arises from insight into the subject and allows us to convey a point of view. We learn that sensitivity of touch is an extremely attractive quality and that it is even more valuable when married to acute observation. We should also bear in mind that sometimes the work that seems least important to us can turn out to be some of our best.
The Graceful Curve
by Andrew Conklin
I first encountered an original figure painting by Ingres in 1984. I was studying at the National Academy of Design, and when walking through the museum I entered a gallery hung with the work of Ingres’s entire graduating class at the École des Beaux- Arts. Among a sea of paintings, his stood out – even at 21 years old, the components of Ingres’ greatness were in place. This experience has reverberated in my work ever since.
What is it about Ingres’ technique that elicits admiration of artists from Degas to Picasso? The alchemy of his genius is of course complex, but if I had to cite one particular ingredient, it would be his unusually curved line. Ingres’ restless and fluid, italic, f-shaped line caught me in that room in 1984, and it is evident in a number of the drawings in The Morgan’s show. For example, in Portrait of Charles-Désiré Norry, the half-figure is a virtual fractal image of these lines, arranged at scales from the minute to the expansive. The curve of the eyelid, the curl of the lip, the sweep of the lapel, even the slashed folds of the coat contain refrains of this line.
The power of this wavering line was first noted by the English painter William Hogarth, who called it the “line of beauty” and argued that it adds grace to all forms. (“Forms of most grace have least of the straight line in them,” he wrote.) Ingres’s Portrait of Guillaume Guillon Lethière is another example of the value of this line of beauty. The subject’s face is delicately woven in tight pencil strokes, and the artist’s exuberant technique spills out in a bounty of serpentine lines, all twisting in a graceful dance. One movement in particular reprises the elegant spiral I saw in that 1984 painting: A rising sinuous line joins forms aligned to guide the eye from bottom to top, starting with the rounded hat brim, touching the left cuff, leading to the overlapped lapel to the right shoulder, and finally up to the face. The effect produced is one of dynamism, economy, sophistication, and beauty.
Unity and Incongruity
by Mark Tennant
Ingres took from the Academy’s classicism and used what he needed to portray the bourgeoisie of mid-19th century. He knew many of these sitters personally. His delightful drawing of Frau Reinhold and her daughters is a complex composition of serenity and calm, and Ingres’ technique reinforces this sense. As in the portrait of Guillame Lethière, Ingres uses multiple arcs to enclose this group. The child on the right is attached at the lower arm, and her shoulders suggest a continuous line connecting with her mother’s arm to complete an ellipse. The child on the left is also connected with the arms, forming an arc. For this composition, Ingres placed the darkest value not in the main figure’s head but in the center of the group, on the dark ribbon of Frau Reinhold’s dress, a decision that ties her and the children together.
About the Exhibition
“Ingres at The Morgan” is on view September 9 through November 27 at The Morgan Library & Museum, in New York City. It presents a selection of 17 drawings by the French master spanning his entire career. For more information, visit www.themorgan.org or call (212) 685-0008.
Appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of American Artist Drawing Magazine.