Bare-chested, his pink robe draped to one side like a furled curtain, the great big god sits with high, thick clouds wreathing his throne and cushioning his left elbow. He’s in one of his moods. How to arouse him? Thetis the sea nymph is sure she can manage it. Bare-breasted, her sage-green gown elegantly draped around buttock and thigh, she molds herself against the mighty knee and reaches up to twiddle his beard.
When Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted Jupiter and Thetis in 1811, he was just 30 years old. Possessed by the ambition to exceed his teacher, Jacques-Louis David, in polish, and the English sculptor John Flaxman in Neoclassical execution, he made this scene on Mount Olympus more charged than anything that he—or indeed they—had previously achieved. Nothing was skimped. The clouds hardened nicely; the sky shone like blue velvet; every detail of the bas-relief beneath the throne, from the horses’ flared nostrils to their pawing hooves, was rendered muscular. As for the god and nymph, even their feet express allure. Her supple right toe just touches his lordly right toe, and you don’t have to be a sandal fetishist to feel the thrill.
At the recent Ingres exhibition at the Louvre, people filed unsmiling past Jupiter and Thetis. Clearly the painting was being admired more for the fine detail—the production values, so to speak—than for its preposterous allure. Similarly, the sheen on Joan of Arc’s body armor and the gorgeousness of Madame Moitessier’s bracelets seemed to arouse nothing more than respectful murmurs. Unnoticed or disregarded was Ingres’s marvelous intensity, an intensity that can only be described as erotic.
As if to compensate for this apparent lapse in popular perception, Stéphane Guégan, one of the exhibition’s curators, has written Ingres: Erotic Drawings, published by Flammarion. The short book features a number of paintings, notably Jupiter and Thetis, some fragmentary figure studies from the Musée Ingres in Montauban, France, and several mildly pornographic drawings after engravings by Giulio Bonasone. In the text Guégan strives to ease into the public consciousness the idea that Ingres was a sexual being rather than a chill perfectionist.
This should not need saying. Ingres’s constant instinct was to smooth and dilate, to harmonize the slope of the shoulder with the curves of the spine, thigh, and ankle, plumping and elongating where necessary so that even his commissioned portrait drawings of English gentlemen and their families on holiday in Rome breathe with lively expectation. Every drawing Ingres ever made was an overture, every painting a consummation. Baudelaire talked of him as being a painter of “profound sensual delight.” He is more than that. All Ingres is erotic.
“The erotic instinct,” Sigmund Freud told Albert Einstein, “is to conserve and unify.” That’s Ingres all over. Ingres’s eroticism focuses mind and body. Even his bullish newspaper proprietor Monsieur Bertin (1832) is erotic. From creased waistcoat to cocked eyebrow he exudes erogenous power. Ingres treated models and paying sitters alike as absorbing objects to be primped and mirrored, dressed up or stripped bare, set on pedestals or reclined on beds. Plump in crimson velvet, Madame de Senonnes (1815) inclines forward a little on the silken couch, the better to display her diaphanously veiled bosom. She, along with all the other ornaments of the post-Waterloo Parisian social scene, presents herself as a readymade—all the painter had to do was render permanent her perceived gorgeousness. Part of the eroticism lies in our complicity with Ingres. We know, as he knew, that these grandes dames—Madame Moitessier being perhaps the finest of them all—are divinities displayed to us but kept from us.
Ingres freezes the fascinated gaze. Voyeuristically, he makes a thing of it, conflating the sacred and the profane. In his several versions of the Virgin adoring the Host, for example, he transforms one of his salon goddesses into a more modestly dressed Madonna who looks down with pride on a wafer of bread made flesh on a chalice. It’s her belief, and Ingres’s, too, that this perfect disc is the transubstantiated body of her son.
Ingres, famously, was not a romantic figure. “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” Flaubert said. Like Flaubert, Ingres created—crafted—a world apart, in his case a world surrealistically flawless. His portrait subjects are the sort of ladies that poor, willful Emma Bovary longed to be. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, coincidentally, during the same period that Ingres painted his equally scandalous The Turkish Bath (1859–63). “I am Madame Bovary,” Flaubert once said. It would be too fanciful to think of Ingres as a Madonna or Madame Moitessier. Yet there they are, utterly Ingres, utterly expressive of his verisimilitudinous desire.
“All art is erotic,” wrote Adolf Loos in 1908, when, in Jugendstil and Cubism, in Matisse and Duchamp, a sort of consensus formed that a work of art must be true to its materials if it is to transcend them. Painters as disparate as Degas and Picasso recognized in Ingres this vivid truth. Eroticism floods the senses. Matisse described finding himself “in an orgy of emotion in front of the beloved object,” and it was just so for Ingres. He simply sublimated overt emotional expression in favor of absolute and exquisite tenacity.
Not being a 20th-century man himself, however, Ingres was not attuned to notions of the revelatory irrational and the subconscious. When he delivered Odalisque with a Slave (1839–40) to Charles Marcotte d’Argenteuil, Ingres said he was a bit worried about the reaction of the patron’s wife: “May she forgive the touches of eroticism in our picture.” Touches? The painting is an out-and-out compendium of erotic features—some blatant, like the languid surrender of the odalisque to the charms of music and to the desire of her unseen master, and some subliminal, couched in tone and color.
“Like painting,” said Salvador Dalí, “love enters through the eyes to flow out again through the hairs of the brush.” Ingres would have disapproved of Dalí, no doubt, but the words echo his sentiments. For Dalí’s “love,” read “pure beauty” in the case of Ingres. Ingres’s passion for harmonized detail and his leanings to the fetishistic anticipated Surrealist traits by at least a century. For Ingres, as more blatantly for Dalí, there was nothing more enduring than desire. “What will remain of Surrealism?” asked André Masson. “The erotic.”
William Feaver is a London correspondent for ARTnews