Picture of the month

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 'Angelica saved by Ruggiero', 1819-39

Judging by the number of times he painted this theme, Ingres was particularly inspired by the chivalric ideals and sensual possibilities of the story of a damsel in distress.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Angelica saved by Ruggiero, 1819-39
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Angelica saved by Ruggiero, 1819–39

The subject is inspired by Ariosto's epic poem, 'Orlando Furioso', written in Italy in the 16th century. It represents the hero, Ruggiero, mounted on a hippogriff (a mythical creature, which is half horse, half griffin) rescuing the captive Angelica from a sea monster. This painting is one of many variants made by Ingres over the years; he first painted the subject in Rome in 1819 for the French king, Louis XVIII, to be placed over a door in the throne room at the Palace of Versailles.

Ingres was the leading Classical painter of the 19th century, but in this painting, the coastline is wild, rocky, and desolate – more reminiscent of Romanticism. The protagonists – a knight in shining armour, a nude damsel, a hippogriff, and a hideous sea monster – are painted with meticulous care and precision. Each figure is scrutinised and textures are accurately rendered and contrasted; we can count the feathers of the hippogriff and feel the sharpness of its claws, or admire the beautiful chasing on Ruggiero’s armour against his fluid silk cape. All traces of the artist, such as his brushstrokes, are smoothed away, and we are asked to believe that this fantasy is real.

Despite her moment of extreme peril, Angelica stands elegantly with one foot in front of the other – her soft, shapely body against the hard rock. Her outstretched arms are chained, her head is flung back in despair, and her neck is unrealistically swollen. Her eyes roll, perhaps just enough to see the arrival of her saviour. Her pose is erotic, inviting, the incarnation of feminine helplessness.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: 'Angelica saved by Ruggiero'