The Valpincon Bather (1808) by J.A.D. Ingres
Interpretation of Neoclassical Female Nude Painting

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The Valpincon Bather.
By J.A.D. Ingres.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Modern Paintings of
the nineteenth century.

The Valpincon Bather (1808)


Explanation of Other French Paintings


Name: The Valpincon Bather (1808) (La Grande Baigneuse)
Artist: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Female Nude
Movement: Neoclassical art
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

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

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

Analysis of The Valpincon Bather by Ingres

One of the more conservative figures in French painting of the 19th century, Ingres trained under Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) before winning the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1801. But despite his outstanding drawing, his style of neoclassical painting - which borrowed from Northern Renaissance art as well as the Italian Renaissance - proved to be out of step with the views of the French Academy and critics alike. As a result, he suffered a series of bitter disappointments with early paintings such as: Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806, Musee de l'Armee, Paris), The Valpincon Bather (1808, Louvre, Paris), and La Grande Odalisque (1814, Louvre, Paris). Indeed, it wasn't until he reached the advanced age of 44 that he achieved proper recognition, with The Vow of Louis XIII (1824, Montauban Cathedral), after which he was appointed a full member of the French Academy and awarded the Cross of the Legion d'honneur by King Charles X. His reputation was further boosted in 1826 with the publication of a lithograph of La Grande Odalisque, a painting which, having been severely criticized some years before, now became widely popular. His meticulous style of painting was now promoted as an exemplary form of academic art, and a welcome counterbalance to the Romanticism of Delacroix and others. Over the next four decades, he continued to produce some fine examples of mythological painting, including: Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808-27, Louvre), The Apotheosis of Homer (1827, Louvre), Stratonice and Antiochus (1840, Musee Conde, Chantilly); and Odalisque with Slave (1842, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). But his real talent lay in figure painting (involving only a few figures), and portrait art, where his rendering of different textures, and surfaces - notably the human body - was exceptional. Arguably his two greatest works of portraiture are Madam Moitessier (1844-56, Louvre) and his monumental Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832, Louvre).

The subject of the female nude occurs throughout Ingres' oeuvre. Beginning in his early years he had defined his own economical method of design by using simple lines and forms to express both ideal beauty and strength. He defined bodies and contours clearly and concisely, modeling their forms with a soft play of light, quite unlike the heavy chiaroscuro and melodramatic tenebrism used by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his followers. He concentrated on rendering surfaces, creating the illusion that nothing substantial exists behind them.

The Valpincon Bather (La Grande Baigneuse) - Ingres' first great nude - was originally entitled "Seated Woman" before being renamed after one of its 19th century owners. It was one of the three paintings Ingres was required to submit for adjudication to Paris, while studying at the French Academy in Rome during his Prix de Rome. It was a slightly unusual choice of subject and critics were unimpressed. Ingres had already caused something of a stir at the salon with Portrait of Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806, Musee de l'Armee, Paris), a work that was roundly condemned for its old fashioned qualities. And it was not until 1855 that The Valpincon Bather received the acclaim it deserved, with one critic declaring that "Rembrandt himself would have coveted the amber colour of this pale torso." In fact, the shape of the woman's back left such a deep impression on Ingres that he reproduced it in several later works. See, for instance, The Turkish Bath (1862-3, Louvre), whose central figure playing a mandolin, is highly reminiscent of the Valpincon lady. See also his Golden Age (1862, Chateau de Dampierre). One might even say that The Valpincon Bather served as the model for all his later nudes, and the fact he returned time and again to this genre is an ideal illustration of his quest for perfection.



In line with the aesthetics of Italian neoclassicism - derived largely from Greek sculpture - Ingres presents us with a tasteful, restrained nude, viewed from the back, and marked by a calm and timeless sensuality. (It may be based on the "Italian Venus" (1812) by Antonio Canova.) The delightful ambiguity in the painting stems from the subtle interplay between the convincing warmth and touchability of the seemingly chaste figure and the textures and shapes of the materials that surround her. Neoclassicists (like the Greeks before them) painted and sculpted lots of chaste female nudes, but chastity doesn't make women unerotic or undesirable - quite the contrary.

The artist makes no attempt to create a mythological or classical pretext for the nude. There is nothing else in the picture except a discarded red sandal, white bed sheets and background drapes or tapestries. Indeed, the scene is unusually motionless and simple, with no hint of tension. The colour scheme is cool and muted, while even though the woman adopts a relaxed pose at the end of the bed, there is a palpable sense of lightness about her that almost prevents her from sinking into the mattress. (Note: For details of the pigments used by artists like Ingres, see: 19th-Century Colour Palette.)

But Ingres does borrow from the mannerist painting of Bronzino (1503-1572), and (supposedly) also from the Graces of his favourite artist Raphael (1483-1520) in the Loggia of Psyche fresco (1517-18, Villa Farnesina) - as well as from Coucher a l'Italienne (1650, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) by Jacob van Loo (1614-70). However, the two latter examples look rather unlikely models. A more likely explanation is that Ingres relied largely, if not exclusively, on life drawing for his figure. As he said: "drawing is seven-eighths of painting."

The Valpincon nude is already very typical of Ingres's painterly style. Notice the sumptuous textures (the turban, the green curtain, the tassled fringe of the bed cover); the soft, sinuous lines of the woman's torso; the diffuse light, which throws a subtle shadow in complete contrast to the deep modelling associated with Caravaggism; and the relatively shallow picture plane.

Notice also how Ingres' presents us with large expanses of canvas where nothing happens, in order to slow the tempo and direct the eye. In this case, see how the eye is drawn down the back and the left leg to the water flowing into the bath, bottom left.

Like the classically proportioned but somewhat impersonal nudes of Francois Boucher (1703-70) and Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), The Valpincon Bather is not really meant to be a real live woman but an expression of classical femininity - an eternal standard for an ever changing world.

For more about the influence of Ingres on twentieth century artists, please see: Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30).

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.

The Artist's Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


• For the meaning of other Neoclassicist paintings, see: Homepage.

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