Updated: Aug 24
Dr. Orton describes her relationship with Ingres’ most compelling portrait.
While I was living in Bologna as a PhD student, it was actually cheaper to fly home via Paris than to fly direct. This was an excellent excuse to visit a friend who was working as a model by day, researching esotericism by night.
We would drink on the left bank, put in special requests at the libraries of the Sorbonne, climb to the Sacré-Cœur to tell fortunes and sneak outside in the middle of the night when it started snowing. My life was transient then, unsettled even, but those meetings in Paris were exciting, glamorous and dreamlike.
Most inelegantly, we would climb over the turnstiles in the metro, saving our ticket money for trips to the Louvre. For me, the main attraction was not the looted treasure of Napoleon, nor the Mona Lisa, nor the Venus de Milo. My first pilgrimage was always to Ingres’ oil portrait of Louis-François Bertin, editor and owner of the Journal des Debats and a towering figure of nineteenth century Parisian intellectual life.
An Introduction to Monsieur Bertin
It might seem odd that a portrait of a middle-aged gentleman, with a dusting of white hair, leaning forwards in his chair to rest on his large, claw-like hands, should be the favourite of a wayward doctoral student. To me, though, Ingres’ portrait has always suggested the figure of a kindly, learned uncle, whose personal warmth would be much needed in distressing times.
The story behind the portrait might suggest why it sparked such a reaction in me. Ingres would rather have been a great history painter than a portraitist. Even so, he put himself under a great deal of pressure to get things right.
Bertin was at the height of his power when he came to Ingres in 1832. After numerous sittings and sketches in which Ingres agonised over the drawing of Bertin’s head in particular, the painting began, but to no avail: the pose was not right. In despair, Ingres declared that it would not do; all their time had been wasted and they would have to begin again.
Finally, after observing Bertin seated, engrossed in conversation with his sons, Ingres knew that he had the right pose and the painting recommenced. The result was the richest, most compelling portrait ever painted: in my opinion, no-one has ever gone beyond it.
Who understands the critics?
My admiration for Ingres began with Bertin, but grew the more I came to know his work, and his approach to art, life and the critics. Undeniably innovative, Ingres was nonetheless frustrated by the art world’s inability to appreciate that the art of the future must continue the conversation started by the art of the past.
Ingres’ Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne had been slammed by his mentor Jacques-Louis David and the critics alike, for its recollection of Van Eyck’s gothic Ghent Altarpiece four hundred years earlier. His enthusiasm for the work of Raphael is obvious in his La Grande Baigneuse, but he knew that this had to be tempered, so he also sent in the safer option of Oedipus and the Sphinx to the competition judges of the Prix de Rome.
As for Monsieur Bertin, his kindness is evident in his remarks following the painter’s breakdown: “My dear Ingres, do not worry about me; above all, do not torment yourself in this way. You want to begin my portrait all over again? Do so at your leisure. You will never tire me and as long as you need me I will be at your command.”
Bertin’s compassion was a stimulus to Ingres’ faithfulness to his own values, his ability to see and portray the very best in people and his appreciation of simple humanity. The meeting of the two was bound to produce something spectacular. The portrait was a huge success; even the critics loved it.
Meeting Monsieur Bertin in the Twenty-First Century
Ingres already knew what he wanted and who he was when he met Monsieur Bertin. He knew he couldn’t please the critics or even his heroes - but he also knew when something wasn’t right with his own work. The final result already existed in Ingres’ capacity as a painter, but it took Bertin’s kindness and humanity to bring it out.
As for me in twenty-first century Paris, I was trying to find myself and in need of a steady hand: someone you could go to when you were in trouble, who wouldn’t shy away from telling you what you’d done wrong but who gave the best advice, who pulled just the right book out of the library to help you find the solution, but who could also be a grumpy old badger who would sooner smoke his pipe in solitude than entertain visitors.
That’s what Ingres saw in Monsieur Bertin and that’s what he showed us. That’s what captivated the Paris Salon when the portrait was exhibited and what drew me to the Louvre nearly two centuries later. That’s what gave me the feeling – through all my ill-advised antics in the city – that I’d never be alone in Paris.
Find Out More:
Find out more about Ingres and his inspirations in our Cultural, Intellectual and Art History course on European Painting or Nineteenth Century French Art and Thought. We also cover the tumultuous events of M. Bertin’s life and their manifestation in art as part of our course, The Age of Revolution.
Experience for yourself some of the engaging political discussions that would have delighted M. Bertin himself in our Politics courses, Political Ideas and Political Ideologies or in our History course, the French Revolution.
These are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!
Contact us to find out more!