Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856) by J.A.D. Ingres
Interpretation of Realist Portrait Painting

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Madame Moitessier (1844-56)
By J.A.D. Ingres.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Modern Paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856)


Standing Portrait
Other Female Portraits by Ingres
Explanation of Other French Paintings


Name: Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856)
Artist: J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait Art
Style: Realism (classical)
Location: National Gallery, London

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Madame Moitessier (1851)
(Standing) by J.A.D. Ingres.
National Gallery of Art,
Washington DC.

For more about the impact
of Ingres' art on 20th century
artists, please see:
Classical Revival in modern art

For analysis of pictures
by Neoclassical artists
like Ingres, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Portrait of Madame Moitessier by J.A.D. Ingres

Although he is now seen as the embodiment of 19th century academic art in France, it took Ingres more than 20 years before the French Academy embraced his particular style of neoclassical art. All his life, Ingres yearned to be revered for his history painting - the most prestigious of all the categories in the Hierarchy of the Genres - but his true forte was really figure painting (limited to compositions with a small number of figures) and portraiture, in which his treatment of surfaces, textures and the human body was outstanding. A pupil of the influential Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and a winner of the coveted Prix de Rome (1801), Ingres suffered a series of early disappointments with paintings like Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806, Musee de l'Armee, Paris), The Valpincon Bather (1808, Louvre, Paris), Jupiter and Thetis (1811, Musee Granet, Aix-en-Provence), and La Grande Odalisque (1814, Louvre, Paris), before finally achieving the recognition he deserved with The Vow of Louis XIII (1824, Montauban Cathedral). In 1825 he was elected a full member of the French Academy, which led to a series of official commissions. Around this time, conservative critics and academicians began to see him as a counterweight to the new, unruly school of Romanticism, embodied by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). New works, as diverse as Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808-27, Louvre), The Apotheosis of Homer (1827, Louvre) and Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832, Louvre) brought him further plaudits, but later he was stung by criticism of his ambitious picture of The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian (Cathedral of Autun), which appeared at the Salon of 1834. In response he willingly accepted an appointment as director of the Ecole de France in Rome, where he remained for six years. He returned to Paris in 1840, and over the next twenty years added to his growing status as a major figure in French painting, with several fine works, including: Stratonice and Antiochus (1840, Musee Conde, Chantilly); Odalisque with Slave (1842, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore); Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856, National Gallery, London) and The Turkish Bath (1862-3, Louvre). He also produced a smaller, reversed version of Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), which is now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Madame Moitessier was among Ingres' last major portraits and ranks alongside his earlier realist painting - the monumental Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832, Louvre) - as one of the greatest 19th century portraits of the French school.

Marie-Clotilde-Ines Moitessier (nee de Foucauld) (1821–1897) was the wife of Sigisbert Moitessier, a wealthy banker and lace merchant, twice her age. In 1844, Ingres was invited to paint her portrait but demurred, owing to his focus on mythological painting, which remained his main priority. However, when he met Madame Moitessier in person, he was so impressed by her "Junoesque looks" (the description is Theophile Gautier's) that he accepted the commission.

He started on the preparatory sketching for the portrait in 1844 but progress was slow. This was because the picture was supposed to include the Moitessiers' young daughter, Catherine, but Ingres found her impossible to handle, and eventually (in 1847) eliminated her from the project. (She survives only in a single preparatory drawing in the Ingres Museum at Montauban.) Work was further delayed by the death of Ingres' wife (1849) and other Moitessier family concerns. In June 1851, Ingres began again, this time with a standing portrait of her (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), which was completed six months later (see below). He then returned to the original seated portrait, which he finally finished in 1856, at the age of 76.



Few of Ingres' portraits are as sumptuous as Madame Moitessier. She is shown seated in three-quarter profile on a pink chaise longue amidst a profusion of coloured fabric, jewellery and fine French furniture. Ageless in the manner of a Greek goddess, with her classical profile impossibly reflected in a mirror to her left, she is dressed in an opulent Second Empire aniline-dyed flowered silk from Lyon. Its details are rendered with the same microscopic precision as any Flemish painting of the 15th century. Her rounded, firmly delineated but barely modelled shoulders, arms and face are as smooth as polished alabaster.

Her pose, with her head supported by her right forefinger comes from an old fresco painting of Hercules and Telephus from Herculaneum, dating back to the art of classical antiquity, which Ingres had originally seen in Naples, and of which he owned several engravings. Some art critics see this as a declaration that Moitessier represents the ideal of classical beauty.

But any ancient references are overshadowed by Ingres' minutely realistic reproduction of the differing surfaces - the fine fabrics, the fashionable jewellery art, the ormolu frames, Chinese porcelain and fan. In all, a magical melange of timeless grandeur and bourgeois flamboyance. This is neoclassical painting with a very unclassical sensuality.

Standing Portrait of Madame Moitessier

As mentioned above, Ingres painted a second Portrait of Madame Moitessier, which depicts her in a standing position. It was painted in the latter half of 1851 and is now part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

The picture shows her with all the imposing aloofness of a Roman goddess. Her posture is classically severe, while the ivory skin of her face and shoulders is silhouetted against the claret wallcovering, and that of her arms against the Spanish black of her dress.

Ingres typically painted every detail of a portrait from life, in order to ensure the most lifelike representation possible. Madame Moitessier is no exception. With minute precision he captures the matt black of her velvet and lace dress as well as the gleam of her rubies and gold charms. The wallcovering is also depicted with a precision equalled only by Flemish painters and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).

The static quality of the composition, enhanced by the superrealism of Moitessier's accessories, merely adds to her statuesque character providing a piquant contrast with the sensuality of her flesh. Not for the first time, one is left to ponder on the latent ambiguity of Ingres' art.

Other Female Portraits by Ingres

The best female portraits painted by Ingres include:

- Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere (1806) Louvre, Paris.
- Madame Devaucay (1807) Musee Bonnat, Bayonne.
- Madame de Senonnes (1814) Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.
- Mademoiselle Jeanne Gonin (1821) Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati.
- Countess D'Haussonville (1845) Frick Collection, NYC.
- Baronne de Rothschild (1848) Rothschild Collection, Paris.
- Princess De Broglie (1853) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Explanation of Other French Paintings

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

The Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David.

Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.


• For the meaning of other 19th century portraits, see: Homepage.

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