Marie-Clotilde-Inès de Foucauld was born in 1821 and married Sigisbert Moitessier, a wealthy banker, in 1842. The portrait is influenced by the art of antiquity and the Renaissance. The pose, with the hand touching the cheek, is derived from an ancient Roman fresco of a goddess, from Herculaneum. This may suggest that for Ingres Madam Moitessier represented the ideal of classical beauty. The National Gallery's 'Portrait of a Lady' by Titian may have inspired him to add the profile in the mirror.
Ingres believed that portraiture was a less elevated art form than history painting. When first asked by Moitessier in 1844 to paint his wife, Ingres refused. On meeting her he was struck by her beauty and agreed. The picture was left unfinished and after seven years the sitter complained. In 1851, Ingres painted a standing portrait (National Gallery of Art, Washington) before returning to the seated portrait which he finally completed in 1856. The original intention had been to include the sitter's daughter Catherine, but she had grown up by the time Ingres came to complete the portrait.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Playwright, novelist, broadcaster and cultural critic: our next interviewee brings the concept of the Renaissance man, or in this case woman, right up to date. From her appearances on the BBC’s ‘Late Review’ to her position as trustee of the British Museum, Bonnie Greer has always had an inspiring and idiosyncratic take on great art as I discovered first hand when I joined her on a recent visit to one of her favourite paintings in the National Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of a very striking portrait. It’s by Dominique Ingres, it’s of Madame Moitessier, who was the wife of a wealthy banker and it was painted around the middle of the 19th century. Now I’m joined by playwright, Bonnie Greer. Bonnie, what is it that fascinates you about this image?
Bonnie Greer: I love this image because if you come closer to it, which is how you really come to understand this painting, if you come closer, you start to see how, say from a distance, it looks very sort of classical, with the Greek pose – she’s got her hand on, a finger on her head, and her hand resting quite tranquilly – but when you come closer, you can see just how sensual this painting is and that’s the big surprise. Look at the blush on her skin, look at the way that he’s detailed so exquisitely the dress. It’s almost as if the dress and the colour of the dress are coming out of the frame itself. You can see the dress continue past the frame. Look at the blush on her face and the light in her eyes, the way she looks directly at you, which is always amazing to me, and also the fact, if you look at the frame – Ingres designed this frame, and it matches the dress – it’s quite extraordinary. So I love it because you get this double surprise from the distance, you get this classical look, and then when you come up close, you really, really see how sensual and emotional this painting is.
And the other thing about it that I really, really love is that he has a great photographic quality, so that you can believe in a strange way that this painting may be roughly what this woman looked like; it’s as if she’s going to stand up in a moment and walk right out of this whole frame to you. And I really, really love that kind of immediacy, and also that you know that this woman is very wealthy and she’s not very comfortable with her wealth, because her clothes are of course designed for her body, but she’s sitting there as if she’s just really, really bored and she wants to get out of this as quickly as she possibly can.
So it has so much story and narrative to it, and I always come back to it and look at that. It’s also, one other thing… it’s about women as well, it’s about being trapped in the kind of finery of the day. This sort of pose that a rich woman has to do to show how much money her husband has, and I love this look on her face – it’s like, 'who cares?' So it’s just really a most wonderful painting to me.
Miranda Hinkley: It’s kind of ironic that he wasn’t so keen on the idea at first, was he? But then he accepted the commission when he saw her and realised how striking looking she was. I guess to us she probably doesn’t look that beautiful, but to him there was something kind of almost goddess-like about it.
Bonnie Greer: I think that first of all he really hated doing portraiture anyway, he thought these things were beneath him and he did these things for money. I mean he was a pupil of David, so he wanted to do the kind of heroic things, and the way he kind of compensated for that was to put these sort of bourgeois subjects in heroic poses, so they kind of at least gave you some idea of gods.
But then, as you say, he was a man who was highly erotic and we don’t understand that word anymore. We think it means sensual or sexual, but what it deeply means is the ordering of materials of this world – the sort of connection with nature, things that are made, so that you actually want to touch and feel these things, and he’s very much like that. So when he saw her, he was quite struck by the possibilities of recreating this woman in paint. So he took the job. But what’s most amazing to me is that he didn’t finish it. He came back a couple of years later, when he was an older guy. She wouldn’t have looked like this, but what he painted was what was from his memory, so that in fact what we have here is not Madame Moitessier as she really was, but as she was remembered through a man who still obviously had a quite strong sense of his own sexuality even at an age where most of us think that that’s past it. It wasn’t with him, so you get to see a man basically raging at the dying of the light and that actually gives it its very strong central power and its beauty for me.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Bonnie Greer.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Four, October 2008