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Comtesse Dhaussonville Analysis Essay

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Comtesse d’Haussonville - 1845

New York, Frick Collection

’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


Contemporary Works

1844 J.M.W. Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed, London, National Gallery

1845 Adolf von Menzel: Garden of Prince Albrecht’s Palace in Berlin, Berlin, Staatliche Museen

Though fascinating, she was not at all puffed up. How many beautiful women would admit, as she did, that she had been accused at the age of 9 of having a character that ''had not enough nourishment in it to sustain a dog''? (The same severe critic likened her successively to ''a field mouse, a topaz, a roe deer, a blue fairy and a spark,'' and told her that she should have a runaway horse as her true heraldic emblem.) Madame d'Haussonville never lost, moreover, the delicate sweet roundness of person that prompted her mother to tell her in childhood that she was ''a pretty vase without handles.'' Altogether, she was not the easiest of sitters - above all for Ingres, who had very high standards in portraiture and once said to his pupil Amaury-Duval that nothing in the world was more difficult than to paint a woman's portrait. ''It can't be done,'' he said. ''It's enough to make one weep.'' No one could guess from the tranquillity and resolution of the final image that Ingres went through agony to get it right. The portrait was begun in the summer of 1842, when the sitter was just 24, and it was not finished till three summers later. Everything was against it. Ingres didn't want to paint portraits at all, because he had bigger and more ambitious projects in mind. The sitter went abroad for months on end. There was a long pause while she had a baby. Ingres liked to monitor every last nuance of face and bearing when he was working on a portrait, and we know from his preliminary drawings that he would make as many as 11 amendments on the basis of a single pencil sketch of the face. He did nothing in a hurry.

Then there was the pose to be considered. Edgar Munhall traces it in essence to a Roman statue of modesty (Pudicity, to be precise) that is in the Vatican collections in Rome. Ingres used the same pose in his ''Antiochus and Stratonice,'' which Madame d'Haussonville and her husband had seen in Rome. Conceivably, he was also influenced, as Robert Rosenblum suggests in his book on Ingres, by a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Polyhymnia which is in the Louvre. As a keen student of the Muses, Madame d'Haussonville had much in common with Polyhymnia. Be that as it may, the specific disposition of the sitter's arms and hands and the ruminative tilt of her head were ideally suited to his view of her character.

It should be said here that at no time since it was painted has the creative process behind this great portrait been studied in such detail, or set before the visitor with such a profusion of evidence, as is the case in the current exhibition at the Frick. Mr. Munhall has been able to borrow 15 of the surviving 16 preliminary drawings, together with the early oil sketch that was sold at auction in Paris just five months ago. He has researched the family history, sitter's dress, the fashion plates of the day, the bracelet, the upholstered chimneypiece, the serpent ring, the comb, the shawl, the porcelain on the chimneypiece, the ormolu-mounted Oriental vases, the opera-glasses, the candle-sconce, the flowers in the cachepot, the visiting cards and even the bell push on its long and elegant rope.

Not only has he researched all these things, together with their significance for the manners of the day, but in many cases he has been able to borrow the objects in question or their equivalents, together with the copy of the portrait - no great shakes, alas! - by Ingres's pupil Raymond Balze. By the time that we have toured the exhibition downstairs, looked at the portrait upstairs and spent a happy day at home with the catalogue, we shall be privy not only to the making of one of the finest portraits in all European painting but to a Parisian milieu of quite exceptional interest and distinction. Paris has never lacked for fascinating women, but of how many of them can we say, as we can say of Louise d'Haussonville, that she was the daughter, the wife, the mother and the sister of members of the Academie Francaise at a time when the Academy was very much harder to get into than it is today?

But the world to which this show introduces us is not restricted to the Paris of the early 1840's. We also trace the history of that sibylline pose - the chin supported by the hand, the gaze that looks not so much at us as through us, the look of privileged and uninterrupted abstraction - as it turned up in the work of other painters. Ingres's way with the mirror behind his sitter is also followed in ways, and in places and at times that both startle and provoke.

It is one of the paradoxes of art history that this essentially private and introspective portrait should have been so soon and so often exhibited and had so clear and lasting an impact upon other painters. Exhibited in Paris in 1846, 1855, 1867, 1874 and 1910, it was engraved in 1889 and again in 1910 and had also a wide early circulation in photographic form. Its influence is charted in the Frick show through a memorably jaunty portrait of a man by James Tissot, a drawing by Gustave Caillebotte, a pastel portrait by Degas, a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar and - an inventive choice, this -Edouard Vuillard's portrait of Jane Renouardt. This last, painted in 1926-27, shows the sitter in a bathroom of black marble with engraved mirrors. This bathroom wonderfully evokes its period and makes possible a particularly complicated play of reflections.

In this way, the exhibition leads us away from a specific place, time and milieu and toward speculations of a more general kind. After Freud, after Proust, after Leopold and Molly Bloom in James Joyce's ''Ulysses,'' and after the inroads upon traditional portraiture that have been made by photography and the movies, what is there left for the painter, the pastelist and the draftsman to do? What can they trap that has not been trapped by others? What feelings, what perceptions, what aspects of memory remain their particular province? What place is there in the tumult of late 20th-century imagery for the intimation that is arrested, distilled and unified?

As to that, a long book could be written. Edgar Munhall reminds us that in the recent exhibition of Ingres portraits in the Louvre, Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, now in the Met, was described as being closer to Ingres than the portraits painted by Ingres's favorite students. And we can see for ourselves that in Degas's portrait of his younger sister Therese, which dates from the late 1860's, there is a psychological acuity, a casual-seeming accumulation of detail and a calculated asymmetry in the composition that hark back directly to the great portrait that is the pretext for the present exhibition. And when we look at the Vuillard of Jane Renouardt, which is in his ''late'' style and was for so long disregarded on that account, we realize that Vuillard, like Degas before him, was pushing the possibilities of portraiture beyond the frontiers within which it had previously existed.

So there is much more to think about in this wonderful exhibition, so resourceful in its detail and so far-ranging in its overview. It is the New Yorker's privilege that only five minutes' walk away, in the Met, Ingres's hardly less great portrait of Madame d'Haussonville's sister-in-law, the Duchesse de Broglie, is on permanent view. It is the Parisians, in this matter, who are envious of us, and with good reason.

The exhibition at the Frick can be seen through Feb. 16, 1986. Thanks to the Fellows of the Frick Collection, the Henry M. Blackmer Foundation and the Robert Lehman Foundation, the exemplary catalogue can be had for $25 at the Frick. I should add that John Brealey, head of conservation at the Met, has lately wrought his habitual white magic and relieved Ingres's ''Comtesse d'Haussonville'' of the accumulated dirt that had begun to occlude the artist's intentions.

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