Ingres's studio between history and allegory: Rachel, antiquity, and tragedie.

Author:Betzer, Sarah
Position:Essay - Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Critical essay

In 1855 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres finally broke the vow he had made more than twenty years earlier never again to exhibit his work at an annual Salon. At the Exposition Universelle that year, as one of four painters granted a retrospective presentation, Ingres was celebrated as a designated leader of the arts in France. (1) However, Ingres's participation was secured only by the promise of a private gallery in which to show his work. This space at once sequestered the artist's paintings from the presumably distasteful proximity of the work of Eugene Delacroix and others and further buttressed Ingres and his work against the threat of the dual specters of industry and commerce that were such an integral part of the Exposition Universelle phenomenon. (2) Exhibition goers perceived this enforced distance and described Ingres's gallery as a space of literal and figurative alienation. If Ingres had long been regarded as the standard-bearer of the classical tradition, the distance had never seemed greater between the artist and contemporaneity, here emblematized by the Exposition Universelle's conceptual scaffolding of progress and industry. As Andrew Shelton has shown, this gap resonated throughout the critical responses to Ingres in 1855, uniting the assessments of detractors and supporters alike; the artist was "not of his time," and instead practiced the "cold science of an archeologist." (3) Charles Baudelaire, struggling to characterize the experience of Ingres's "sanctuary," wrote that it produced a mix of malaise, boredom, anxiety, and fear in viewers, who felt, almost involuntarily, that they might faint in this space whose rarefied air was more akin to a chemistry lab than an art exhibition. (4)

Ingres's gallery was designed as a temple of art. While implicitly conceived as a rebuttal to the aesthetic challenges faced by Ingres and his school at midcentury, it was nevertheless experienced at best as a frozen Mount Olympus, at worst as a sort of morgue or phantasmatic space inhabited by automatons. (5) In 1855, critics assailed Ingres and his student Amaury-Duval (Amaury Eugene Emmanuel Pineu-Duval), who that year exhibited the allegorical portrait Tragedy, for the disconcerting retreat from the present evinced by their paintings. (6) But despite their fetishization of antique form, Ingres and his students did not turn their backs on the contemporary sphere of the living. If allegory provided the means to elevate portraiture to the level of history painting, it also ensured that the rupture between past and present would be negotiated through the body of the portrait subject. This essay joins other recent work to propose that allegory remained a vital representational mode for nineteenth-century French art, even in the aftermath of the ultimately unsuccessful 1848 competition for the figure of the Republic. (7) In what follows, I hope to show that allegory is a vital conceptual category for rethinking the contours of nineteenth-century art, particularly that which took shape under the long shadow of "history" painting.

Within a year, Ingres had completed yet another temple project, one that emphatically announced his work under the sheltering sign of antiquity and, crucially, allegory. In a joint project with the architect Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, Ingres's watercolor the Birth of the Muses was painted for the rear wall of a miniature temple, the Temple to Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, commissioned by Prince Jerome Napoleon (Fig. 1). (8) In the painting, Ingres returned to the airless contours reminiscent of the linear drawings of John Flaxman and to the neo-Pompeian palette of his earlier career. Surrounded by Jupiter and the eight other Muses, at the center of the composition in a passage of sinuous linearity, the last Muse Erato emerges fully grown from the thighs of her mother, Mnemosyne. Completed between May and August 1856 and today held in the Musee du Louvre, Paris, Ingres's watercolor is the only extant element of the otherwise lost temple structure (Fig. 2). (9) This extraordinary object was based on Hittorff's reconstruction of the Temple of Empedocles at Selinonte (the focus of his book L'architecture polychrome chez les Grecs of 1851) and was constructed of bronze, ivory, and other lavish materials. At its termination, the temple measured a mere three feet tall but cost a stunning total of 800,000 francs; it took the efforts of fifteen artisans to build. (10)

At first glance, the Birth of the Muses seems a fairly straight-forward history painting in miniature. Both Ingres's painting and its architectural framework appear to eschew unequivocally any interest in "the modern" in favor of an exclusive focus on the emphatically "antique" nature of the composite object. However, the temple structure rewarded the attentive viewer with a striking revelation at its core. The presiding Muse is not simply a character from Greco-Roman mythology. In fact, this figure effects, through allegory, a kind of historical fold to bring the viewer face to face with a visage imported from then present-day Paris: the famed tragic actress Rachel (Elisabeth Rachel Felix). Ultimately, the temple project suggests that for Ingres and others at midcentury, antiquity might profitably be given form through recourse to modern identities.

Inscribed over the entrance portico "To Melpomene and to her immortal sisters the Muses," the temple was to have been a gift to Rachel from her lover Prince Jerome Napoleon. Initially commissioned in late 1854 or early 1855, it is uncertain whether the temple was ever in Rachel's possession. (11) Period photographs indicate that after Rachel's death in 1858, the temple was installed in the winter garden of the prince's "Maison Pompeienne" (Pompeian House) at 18, Avenue Montaigne. As its history begins to make clear, the temple could be described as a monument to the intersecting aesthetic identifications of the artists who created it, the man who commissioned it, and the woman to whom it was addressed.

If the Temple to Melpomene offers a site for scrutinizing the intersections of allegory, history, and portraiture in France at midcentury, it does so at once as a singular object and as the last in a series of representations of Rachel by Ingres and his students Amaury-Duval and Theodore Chasseriau between 1843 and 1856. In this constellation of images, these artists employed allegory--as did Rachel herself--in order to give form to the encounter between contemporaneity and antiquity as these terms powerfully converged in the arena of portraiture.


The Temple to Melpomene

Friends and colleagues for decades, Ingres and Hittorff shared a commitment to the study and restoration of an antique past. Hittorff's contributions to resurrecting and representing antiquity ranged from his projects in Paris--such as his renovation of the Place de la Concorde (1836), his plans for Prince Napoleon's Maison Pompeienne (1855), (12) and the Gare du Nord (1862)--to his scholarly publications, primary among them L'architecture polychrome chez les Grecs, documenting his extensive studies in Greece and Italy. (13) Hittorff's scholarly investments resonated with Prince Napoleon's taste for Neoclassicizing architecture, which he in turn shared with his lover Rachel. The exhaustive preparatory studies for the Temple to Melpomene make clear that it was planned and executed as a serious archaeological project; it was conceived in terms of Hittorff's long-standing engagement with debates surrounding the architectural histories of Greek antiquity. (14)

Seeking a structure to best suit its purpose of honoring Melpomene and, by extension, Rachel, Hittorff endowed the temple with a columned portico on both frontal and rear faces, flanked on its lateral sides by a series of embedded columns (Fig. 3). Such a design conformed to Vitruvius's description of Greek temples dedicated to an individual cult figure. (15) Indeed, every aspect of the project demonstrated Hittorff's mature theoretical stance, and the project thus functioned as a masterful summation of the architect's work at the peak of his fame. (16)

While the temple was essentially a bijou destined for Rachel, Hittorff himself attested that "the subject was so seductive to me that in truth I couldn't give myself over to any other work as I was so preoccupied realizing the temple of Melpomene in my imagination." (17) Hittorff exhibited the temple at the Salon of 1859, where he surrounded it with a number of his architectural drawings, including reconstructed elevations and plans of the temples of Jupiter Olympian, many temples of Selinonte, detailed studies of Pompeii, and eight of his drawings of the Temple to Melpomene. (18) This framing leaves little doubt about the place the temple held in Hittorff's work; it stood literally and figuratively at the center of his lifelong pursuits.

Whereas the temple's display worked as symbolic shorthand for Hittorff's long-term aesthetic investments, the structure and decorative elements of the temple were geared allegorically toward a modern Melpomene. Rachel's association with the Muse of Tragedy was reiterated throughout the temple program. While statues of the eight other Muses ornamented the interior cella, a large Phidian chryselephantine (combining ivory and gold) statue of the goddess Melpomene by Charles Simart stood at its center (Fig. 4). (19) Hittorff's interior iconographic program, as executed by Jacques-Jean Barre and Jean-Auguste Barre, was systematically linked to the temple's status as a gift for Rachel through its use of tragic images. The metope bas-reliefs included key scenes of Greek tragedy, and the base of the (relatively) large-scale sculpture of Melpomene was covered in bas-reliefs depicting the Muse. (20)


On the rear exterior temple wall, Ingres's Birth of the Muses rounded out the erudite allegorical program (Fig. 5). (21) In a preliminary study...

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