Wearing her finest clothes and jewellery, Madame Moitessier gazes majestically at us. She is the embodiment of luxury and style during the Second Empire, which saw the restoration of the French imperial throne and the extravagant display of wealth. Her distinctive pose is based upon a Roman wall painting from Herculaneum depicting the goddess of Arcadia.
The portrait was commissioned in 1844 to celebrate the marriage two years earlier of Marie Clotilde-Inès de Foucauld to the wealthy merchant, Sigisbert Moitessier. Ingres was initially reluctant to accept the commission, but changed his mind after meeting the 23-year-old Madame Moitessier, whom he described as ‘beautiful and good’. Nonetheless, it took him 12 years to complete the painting. During this time, the picture underwent several major revisions: a young daughter, Catherine, was originally to be included but was removed from the composition, and a different dress was chosen to reflect the change in fashion.
Ingres was commissioned to paint this portrait in 1844, two years after the sitter, Marie Clotilde-Inès de Foucauld, had married the wealthy banker, Sigisbert Moitessier. He was initially reluctant to accept the commission, but changed his mind after meeting the 23-year-old Madame Moitessier, whom he described as ‘beautiful and good’. Nonetheless, it took him 12 years to complete the painting. The delay was partly caused by the need to finish other commissions and by the death of Ingres’s wife in 1849. The death of Madame Moitessier’s father, also in 1849, and her pregnancy with her second child further extended the delay.
During this time the painting underwent major revisions, often with the active collaboration of Madame Moitessier. The initial plan was to include the sitter’s four-year-old daughter, Catherine, leaning against her mother’s knees. Frustrated by the child’s inability to keep still, Ingres removed her from the composition and also moved Madame Moitessier to the picture’s centre by realigning the canvas on its stretcher. While these extensive changes were being made, Ingres painted a second portrait. Completed relatively quickly in 1851, this is a more solemn picture of Madame Moitessier wearing a black ball gown as she stands at a mantelpiece (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington).
Despite these delays, it’s likely that Ingres decided upon Madame Moitessier’s pose right from the start. It is adopted from a Roman mural, Herakles finding his son Telephos, which includes the goddess of Arcadia seated upon a throne. The mural had been discovered in Herculaneum in 1739 and was subsequently moved to the Museo Borbinico in Naples. Ingres almost certainly saw it when he visited the city in 1814, and he also owned engravings of it. In the portrait, he uses the gesture of Arcadia’s right hand, with its index finger raised, supporting her head. Preparatory drawings show how he gave great attention to the precise positioning of Madame Moitessier’s right arm, hand and fingers.
Women’s fashions had undergone significant changes in the time it took to complete the portrait, and Ingres had to make several revisions to Madame Moitessier’s clothes to prevent the portrait from looking dated when he finished it. Having first selected a dark and then a yellow dress, he finally chose one of lavish floral chintz made from Lyonnaise silk. Its pinkish-reds and blues are echoed in the vase on the left, and its distinctive floral design repeated in the ornate flowers, buds and leaves of the picture’s elaborate gilded frame. The dress is supported by a crinoline – a stiffened or structured petticoat that increased its volume. A radical innovation in women’s fashion that had only been introduced the previous year, the crinoline spread the dress out, enabling Ingres to fully display the material. Madame Moitessier’s hairstyle, with the hair pulled back off the brow to reveal her full face, was also new and, by revealing a glimpse of the ear, provocative too. Ingres skilfully depicts the tones and textures of different fabrics, while the impression of opulence is amplified by the Renaissance- and Byzantine-style jewellery. Ingres paints these jewels in meticulous detail, the purple and red of the amethysts and garnets in the bracelets, brooch and headpiece echoing the reds and pinks used throughout the picture. Here, especially, the oil paint has the smoothness and brilliance of enamel.
Madame Moitessier’s fashionable dress and hairstyle are complemented by the room’s furnishings. A revival of the highly decorative earlier Rococo style was at its height in mid-nineteenth century France. This was the era of the Second Empire, which saw the restoration of the imperial throne and an extravagant display of wealth. The room has the ambiance of a luxurious eighteenth-century salon with its Japanese Imari vase, silk hand-screen, ornate fan, Louis XV console table, gilded mirror frame and padded damask sofa (with a tiny cupid peeking over Madame Moitessier’s left shoulder). This is a picture of flowing lines and curves, as the sinuous line extending from Madame Moitessier’s right elbow to her seemingly boneless hand and fingers is echoed by the table leg, just as its contour is repeated by the curved back of the sofa. Her languid left arm is echoed by the ribbons that spill down the dress.
Madame Moitessier herself is placed high within the painting. This not only allows Ingres to fill almost a third of the picture with her sumptuous dress – and display his virtuoso skill in painting it – but it also gives her an aura of majesty as, self-assured and serene, she calmly gazes upon us. By posing her against a dark mirror, Ingres also offers us a double portrait: one that is frontal and one in profile. However, closer inspection of the mirror reveals some oddities. The reflection is not entirely consistent with her actual position. It also lacks the detail and luminosity of the figure, its dull surface contrasting with the opulence of Madame Moitessier and her surroundings.
Further scrutiny reveals other inconsistencies in the picture’s construction. The area containing the mirror, sofa and table is too cramped for them, while the reflection does not match what we would expect to see. For example, the small cupid has no mirror image, but the decorative carving on which it is mounted does. The reflection of the room’s doors and panels and, yet more confusingly, the reflection of the mirror facing Madame Moitessier in the mirror behind her, further add to this ambiguity. These ‘distortions’ are part of Ingres’s deliberate manipulation of pictorial space.
Madame Moitessier is a fine example of Ingres’s late style in its combination of sumptuous visual display, extraordinary technical skill, compositional complexity and psychological presence. However, Ingres often complained about the numerous requests he received for ‘wretched portraits’, claiming they prevented him from pursuing what he thought was more important – historical and allegorical paintings. Madame Moitessier presented a possible solution to this dilemma, as the painting enabled him to combine contemporary portraiture with elements of history painting, in particular its classical forms and references. Indeed, for Ingres, Madame Moitessier was a living embodiment of the classical ideal. A modern-day goddess enthroned in luxury, she sits impassively, fully confident of her place in society.
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