Half light-struck and half in shadow, the masklike face of a dark, bearded man dominates this composite oil study. The model’s chiseled features appear in high relief, punctured by deep-set eyes that gaze as if in a trance. His mood of detachment is shattered by two delicate hands that extend from a red slash at the base of his throat, their steepled fingers pointing down. The inverted gesture of prayer insinuates a religious theme, as does a shadowy monk’s hood that appears when the painting is turned 90 degrees clockwise. This disconcerting layering of images resists a narrative thread and poses a visual and psychological puzzle. Unraveling these interwoven elements offers insights into Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s studio practice and uncovers clues to the intellectual process behind his distinctive art.
In 1817, having completed his fellowship at the French Academy in Rome, Ingres received his first important commission: to paint an altarpiece for the convent church of Trinità dei Monti. The subject, Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter, was assigned by the French sponsors of the project, suggesting a diplomatic nod to the papacy1 . At 37, Ingres was poised to succeed with the Rome commission. Trained in Paris in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he possessed superior drawing and painting skills. His expertise in rendering costume and in staging dramatic compositions, while idiosyncratic, was critically acknowledged. As a student he had participated twice in the Ecole’s rigorous competition for history painting, winning the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship in 1801 with his execution of the subject Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon. In the years leading up to the altarpiece project he applied his distinctive academic style to portraiture, classical subjects, and exoticized females nudes. Two examples, the hyper-embellished Napoleon I on His Throne (1806) and the disturbingly erotic Jupiter and Thetis that he sent back from Rome in 1811, represent the power of his imagination and the intimidating precision of his technique.
Confronting the art-historical precedents for Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter, which included Perugino’s elegantly staged fresco in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s tapestry in the Vatican, Ingres designed an asymmetric composition in which five apostles cluster to one side of the diagonal pairing of Christ and Peter. Their raised or downcast eyes convey Ingres’s mastery of têtes d’expression, an academic exercise devised to perfect the representation of individual emotions. RISD’s staring head is thought to be a preliminary idea for one of the apostles in this altarpiece, but unlike Ingres’s oil sketches of Matthew, John, and Peter and James the Major, it was never introduced into the final work. The RISD head’s uncanny stare alienates it from the spiritual dialogues of the other apostles and from the expressions of devotion on their faces. Instead it evokes the troubled mood of Jupiter, while referencing in its swarthy handsomeness Ingres’s own youthful likeness and the portraits of friends that he painted while in Rome.
The hands in the lower half of the oil study can be identified in the finished altarpiece as those of St. John, who was known as the beloved disciple. Compared to the somber masculinity of the head, the delicate character of the hands is striking. Alienated by a dramatic red slash, they are distinctly feminine, imbuing the sketch with a gender polarity that Ingres further explored in the contrasts between the hirsute apostles and the tender countenances of Christ and John. The softly rounded fingers and lowered gaze of the young evangelist project a submissive reverence that prefigured Ingres’s depictions of the Virgin Mary. In a drawing for a commission for the Cathedral of Montauban(1820) and in The Virgin of the Blue Veil (1822–1827), Ingres appropriated this prayerful pose and thereafter incorporated it as a dominant and recurrent motif in his Marian imagery.2
The third segment of the painting represents an idea which Ingres developed apart from the Trinità dei Monti commission but within the same period in Rome. In preparation for painting Pope Pius VII in the Sistine Chapel he preoccupied himself with a study of religious costume ranging from embroidered papal vestments to the brown woolen habits worn by Capuchin monks. In his first version of 1814, the partially hooded profiles of two monks appear among the figures standing before the pope’s elevated throne. In a second version, made in 1820, the full robe is visible on a monk who prostrates himself at the feet of the pope. Precise rendering of detail was essential to Ingres’s concept of finish and distinguished his approach to historical narrative painting. His interest in depicting monks’ robes might also indicate his intention to compete for the market that had been captured by his friend François Marius Granet with The Choir of the Capuchin Church in Rome (1814), a painting whose success generated at least 20 versions.3 Like the hands of St. John, the Capuchin monk reappeared in Ingres’s repertoire, returning in 1854 in his painting of Saint Joan at the Coronation of Charles VII.
The practice of combining related elements on a single support was not unusual for Ingres. He was a prolific draftsman who made thousands of sketches and preparatory drawings in notebooks and on single sheets. His composite studies often included studies of hands, arms, and feet or poses for multi-figural compositions, but this oil study is distinguished by Ingres’s union of unrelated pictorial fragments and by his apparent desire to preserve the evidence of all three. Their future usefulness may be only partial justification for the coexistence of the parts. It is unlikely that their strange interaction was overlooked by Ingres. As an ensemble they represent the art of a painter who pushed the limits of content and technique in order to stimulate heightened visual perception.
Curator of Painting and Sculpture
- 1Susan L. Siegfried, Ingres: Painting Reimagined (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009) 294–317, poses this possibility in her analysis of the politics and context of this commission.
- 2Over the next 30 years, Ingres made several paintings of the Virgin in which her hands are clasped similarly while she gazes at the infant Christ or the Eucharist. See Virgin with Chalice (1841, Pushkin Museum, Moscow) and an 1852 variant in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- 3Siegfried, 2009, 5, argues that Granet’s painting spurred Ingres’s composition of Pope Pius VI in the Sistine Chapel.