Ingres and the Female Form

A mid-19th century artist’s version of photoshop.

Some say that the natural world offers the closest example of perfection. But, others contend that nature needs a bit of augmentation. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres belonged firmly to this later camp. His glossy 1800s portraits of society ladies illustrate his approach of capturing the ultimate female form by frankenstein-ing features to perfection. The effect is stunning. And also, in flagrant disregard of anatomical veracity. See some of his most egregious examples below.

The Grand Odalisque

This lovely lady boasts a few extra vertebrae. Homo sapiens typically have 33, but I feel we could count 40 or more here. Sure, some people have long torsos, but her back literally takes up half the canvas. And her arm, take another look at that arm. It’s almost a straight up geometric cylinder. There’s barely even an elbow.

The Grand Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1841)
The Grand Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1841)

Portrait of Princesse de Borglie

Take nice look at the Princess’ lovely arms. They are positively limp and death-like. Hands are tricky. But when you’re painting the aristocracy of Europe you don’t just fudge the hands and hope your patron won’t notice. Unless you want to make her look especially supine and willowy. Then this would do the trick.

The Princesse de Broglie by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1825–1860), The Met.
The Princesse de Broglie by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1825–1860)

Portrait of Baronne de Rothschild

In the mid-19th century, elegant sloping shoulders where in vogue. I get it. But, here any doctor would be hard pressed to understand exactly what’s going on with the Barnoness’ bone structure. Particularly in attempting to discern if there are any actual bones at all. Talk about unrealistic beauty standards. It’s hard to imagine how such a tiny little frame could keep up such a large and nice looking head.

Baronne James de Rothschild by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Baronne James de Rothschild by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres


Madame Jacques Louis Le Blanc

Personally, I quite like the look about Madame Jacques Louis. There’s personality behind the gaze she gives the viewer and you do get the indisputable feeling that she is assessing you, not the other way around. But, this poor woman has been cursed to posterity with a freakishly long arm. Outmatched in anatomical absurdity only by her freakishly long neck.

Madame Jacques Louis LeBlanc by Jean Auguste  Dominique Ingres 1823
Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc (1823) Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund. Digital Photo File Name: DT1926.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 12/05/2013

Portrait of the Countess d’Haussonville (1845)

Here again arms make an abrupt departure from reality. The Countess’ forearm is literally as wide as her face. Short of body builder bolstered with questionable protean powders I don’t know how any one could achieve that effect. In making her arm big, Ingres makes other parts small. Her waist, though hidden by her dress and right arm, feels impossibly petite. Her perfectly round face appears even more dainty and doll-like.

Comtesse d'Haussonville by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Comtesse d’Haussonville by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

It’s interesting because Ingres’ portraits feel so life-like yet upon closer inspection they completely flaunt realistic proportions. It’s these subtle, weird distortions that actually made Ingres a major influence for modern artist like Picasso.

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