Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Discover how the painter's independent mindset and distinct style reflected in both his works and his life, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Early Years and Artistic Training

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born in southern France. His father, an artist and decorator, served as his first teacher. Ingres later took lessons at an art academy in Toulouse. In 1797, he went to Paris to study in the studio of Jacques-Louis David, at that time France's (and possibly Europe's) preeminent painter.

David, considered the champion of traditional classical painting, had his own private academy. He held Ingres in enough regard to allow him to work on several portrait commissions. Serious and focused, Ingres gained entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1799. The École, the national art school in France, was known as the Académie des Beaux-Arts until Napoleon released it from government control in 1863.

Art students studying at the École competed for the Prix de Rome, a prize given by the French government to encourage traditional academic-focused art. The winner received five years of study at the French Academy in Rome. After a second-place finish in 1800, Ingres won the Prix de Rome in 1801. However, government budget shortages delayed his trip, so he painted portraits and pursued his art while he waited.

The most famous public art exhibits in Paris at the time were the annual Salons, which drew hundreds of artists, art patrons, crowds and publicity. Any artist wanting to further his or her career participated. Ingres was no different. Earlier entries generated little attention, but he provoked controversy at the Salon of 1806, where his Napoleon on his Imperial Throne confounded the establishment.

Napoleon on His Imperial Throne
Napoleon on His Imperial Throne

Instead of classical rounded forms, the figure is flat, stylized and almost two-dimensional. Clothing and costume elements are rendered with hyper attention to detail. Napoleon stares out from a timeless realm. Critics derided the painting as gothic, and chastised Ingres for a rendering that seemed to point backward to earlier painting styles.

Ingres' Distinct Style

By the time the 1806 Salon opened, Ingres had finally traveled to Rome. He received the reviews second-hand and vowed not to return to Paris. He was, however, still on stipend from the French government. As required by the rules governing the award, he had to send paintings on a schedule back to Paris faculty for review. Although critics lauded his technical abilities, the works weren't favorably received. When his stipend ended, Ingres remained in Italy. He received commissions for major works and altarpieces, and supported himself with portraits in pencil and oil.

Grande Odalisque
Grande Odalisque

Ingres' distinct style is apparent in Grand Odalisque, painted as a commission in 1814. It caused uproar when exhibited at the Salon in 1819. A harem slave peers out at the viewer. Her elongated back undulates like a serpent and her skin is rendered in flat tones. She's a woman who would never be found in nature! In contrast, drapery and bed linens are rendered in crisp detail.

Ingres was willing to distort figures and play with space in search of the ideal. The Grande Odalisque represents a theme, that of women and eroticism, to which Ingres returned repeatedly over his long career. In his manipulations of form, Ingres' work actually foreshadows Twentieth-Century abstract art.

Ingres spent much of his career traveling between France and Italy. Despite his desire to be a history painter, it was at portraits that he excelled. His drawing skills and painstaking eye for detail are evident in The Archeologist Raoul Rochette.

The Archeologist Raoul Rochette
The Archeologist Raoul Rochette

Ingres focuses on the subject's face, rendered it in vibrant detail. You get a sense of personality through Rochelle's eyes and facial features. Ingres conveys clothing in a free outline of varying tones. The curves of his arms and the grasp of a hat bring the subject to life. This portrait captures an immediacy that Ingres' more finished paintings seem to lack.

Later Years and a Rise in Reputation

Ingres' reputation and national standing began to change with the Salon of 1824. His painting The Vow of Louis XIII, with its historical and religious symbolism and sense of calm reverence for academic art, was judged a success by the art establishment.

The Vow of Louis XIII
The Vow of Louis XIII

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