Text by Deanna MacDonald
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’A portrait of a woman! Nothing in the world is more difficult, it can’t be done … It’s enough to make one weep.’ – Ingres
A perfectionist, Ingres surpassed even his teacher Jacques-Louis David in his painstaking attention to detail and finish. A painting was not done until he was satisfied and clients could wait for years for their portrait: the young comtesse depicted here had to wait three as Ingres made endless studies and drawings.
For an artist famed for his portraits, Ingres surprisingly claimed not to like them; he felt portraiture to be a lesser art form, a necessary evil to pay the bills. Despite this assertion, Ingres’ contemporary Charles Baudelaire wrote: ‘M. Ingres is never so happy nor so powerful as when his genius comes to grips with the feminine charms of a young beauty.’
This beauty was Louise (1818–82), Princesse de Broglie, Comtesse d’Haussonville, the granddaughter of Madame de Staël. She was known for her liberal opinions, active social life and as the author of several books, including a biography of Byron. She clearly had a bit of the Byronic spirit herself for her memoirs are filled with statements like,‘I was destined to beguile, to attract, to seduce and in the final reckoning to cause suffering in all those who sought their happiness in me.’ A contemporary called her ‘the girl with eyes like smouldering embers.’ In this portrait she is in her mid-twenties, a mother of three.
Ingres depicts her standing in her fashionable boudoir, leaning with a studied casualness against a blue velvet upholstered mantelpiece, which matches wonderfully the paler blue of her dress. The mantel is cluttered with flowers and porcelains and several ‘props,’ items for which Ingres asked his sitter to help set the scene. There are opera glasses and visitors’ cards, some with their corners turned down (it was common practice in refined circles to pay daily social visits and leave cards; if the person visited was absent, the card was left with its corner folded), which suggest Louise has just arrived home, perhaps from the opera. A shawl thrown over a chair arm reinforces the impression.
Though her heavy-lidded gaze is focused on the viewer, her expression has been described as distant, even vacant; this however may reflect her character. ‘The life of the imagination was for me larger than real life’, she wrote in her memoirs; ‘I lived in a dream’.
A mirror reflects the tortoiseshell comb and ribbon in Louise’s fashionable glossy hair and the finger she places on her round, impossibly creamy chin. However, the angle of the reflection is incorrect and the artist would not see Louise’s finger in the mirror.
Despite their fine detail and near photographic clarity, Ingres’ portraits often feel a bit odd, as he preferred to paint what he thought looked best, regardless of reality; for instance, Louise’s disproportionately large right arm seems to extend from her chest instead of her shoulder. When first shown, critics thought she looked as if she had no muscle or bone. However, according to Ingres, the finished work ‘aroused a storm of approval among her family and friends.’ A contemporary even suggested that the artist, ‘must have been in love to paint such a portrait.’ Whether 65-year-old Ingres was enamoured will never be known, however, one person definitely was; when Louise died her husband immediately left their home and ordered a copy of this work to keep with him always (Louise had bequeathed the original to her daughter).
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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