Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Ingres was a perfectionist given to compulsively reworking canvases, his unfortunate clients often waiting years for the release of their commissions. An extreme example is his Venus Anadyomene commenced in 1807 but which remained in his studio for over forty years until it was at last deemed complete in 1848. The gestation of this portrait was not quite so protracted but the young wife of the banker Sigisbert Moitessier, aged twenty-three at the time of the commission, was nevertheless a more mature 35-year-old when she was finally able to hang it on her wall.
When first approached by M. Moitessier in 1844, Ingres initially refused to accept the commission, never really considering portraiture to be a sufficiently elevated art form and was consequently somewhat dismissive of the genre, even though he was an outstanding exponent. But on meeting Marie-Clotilde-Inès he was enthralled by her beauty and changed his mind.
He originally planned to include the young daughter of the sitter but presumably the hours of inactivity required for such a portrait (especially one executed by such a painter) did not prove to be popular with the child who does not appear in the finished painting. In any event Ingres would have found it difficult to complete her likeness as she was no longer a child by the time the picture was delivered. Many other changes were made over the years including the repainting of the sumptuous dress which, considering the complexity of the final pattern would not have been a decision taken lightly.
In 1849 the death of his wife rendered Ingres incapable of work — he seems to have despaired, feeling that his working life was at an end; in 1851 he donated his art collection to the museum at Montauban, his birthplace. However, in the same year he began work again on two portraits, one of them representing a standing Madame Moitessier resplendent in a black gown (now in Washington - see our article) which he completed within the year. This uncharacteristic alacrity was possibly the result of complaints from M. Moitessier regarding the slow progress of the original commission. But within months he had also resumed work on this portrait which continued to occupy him for a further four years. Of course his technique needed time. A pupil of David, Ingres surpassed even his mentor in his superfine finish and exquisite rendition of every detail, be it jewel, fabric, glass or the refined quality of pampered feminine flesh (although coming perilously close here to a quality not unlike a waxworks model). He also emulated David, the arch neo-classicist, in his appreciation of the antique, fostered by his years of domicile in Rome. And indeed the sitter’s pose, her head resting on her forefinger, probably derives from a Roman wall painting found at Herculaneum.
1855 Gustave Courbet: The Painter’s Studio, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1855 Eugène Delacroix: A Moroccan Saddling a Horse, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1856 John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, Birmingham, Museums and Art Gallery