top of page
  • Writer's picturedandelion

Picasso Ingres: Face to Face, National Gallery

"who is there, among the greats, who has not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing ..." says the quotation from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres on the wall of Room 46 in the National Gallery.

Sometimes it doesn't take a large exhibition; sometimes just two paintings are more than enough to give you plenty to think about. The National Gallery has brought together Ingres' 'Madame Moitessier' (1856) and Picasso's 'Woman with a Book' (1932) in a joyful pairing that reveals how Picasso continued to look to the past even when his work appeared more radical during the 1930s.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was a highly influential and resolutely conservative master of nineteenth-century French art. As a bastion of neoclassical orthodoxy he was profoundly influenced by past artistic traditions. Born 100 years later, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was the opposite: an innovator who destroyed traditions. And yet, Picasso admired Ingres throughout his career not only in his painting but also extensively in his drawings and studies during his neoclassical phase during the 1920s.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres 'Madame Moitessier' (1856)

The female subjects were both 23 years old when the portraits were begun by the much older male artists. Madame Moitessier (wife of a rich banker) gazes majestically at us, her fingers languidly splayed on her temple – her expression serene and detached. She is dressed in her finest clothes and jewellery – the embodiment of opulence and style. The portrait took Ingres12 years to complete resulting in the it having to undergo some major revisions: the dress had to be changed to reflect a change in fashion and her young daughter had to be removed from the composition.

Pablo Picasso 'Woman with a Book' (1932)

Picasso came upon Ingres portrait in 1921 and must have held it in his mind for more than ten years. His own painting, far from being a portrait of a married respectable lady, is is of his mistress, Marie Therese Walter. Latent sensuality is replaced by unbridled sexuality. In many ways his painting is completely different from the Ingres with the nipples brazenly on display, the bold blocks of riotous colour and the textured paint (Ingres' paintwork is smooth and flawless) but the composition, the pose and those fingers on the temple are instantly recognisable; even the fan is replaced with an open book. The slender catalogue (available to read in the gallery, but well worth buying if you're interested) tells us that both artists admired a Roman fresco from Herculaneum which showed the figure of Arcadia with her fingers resting on her temples, expression detached and two fine bracelets on her arm.

This is a tiny but great (and free!) exhibition. The pair have never been exhibited together before and we urge you to pop into the National Gallery to spot the differences (or better the similarities). Either which way, it is a chance to see two stunning and illuminating masterpieces.

Picasso Ingres Face to Face

Room 46, National Gallery

Free to enter

Runs until 9 October 2022

Anya Waddington 20th June 2021


bottom of page