Text by Geoffrey Smith


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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Madame Moitessier - 1851

Washington DC, National Gallery of Art

Madame Moitessier, wearing a jet black dress stands against a magenta background with a damask-like finish. The pale, fine skin of her shoulders, arms and neck contrast magnificently with the black of her gown and the wall hanging. Both wrists are encircled (one could almost say weighed down) by heavy gold bracelets, and gold and silver rings adorn three of her fingers, insuring that the viewer could not mistake her status as a wealthy wife. The elaborate decoration of her hair perhaps leads us to believe that she is perhaps dressed as though for a visit to the Opera.

Ingres, a pupil of David, was famously concerned with the primacy of line and the importance of drawing. Here, the picture space is somewhat flattened as, to some extent, is the the figure of Madame Moitessier but the exquisite representation of her sumptuous apparel, sparkling jewellery, blemish free skin and perfectly oval face with its crowning floral crescent combine to present a monumental ideal of mid nineteenth century bourgeois femininity.

Interestingly, this painting was not the first portrait of Madame Moitessier to have been commenced by Ingres although it was the first to be finished. In 1844 Sigisbert Moitessier commissioned Ingres to paint his wife but progress on this original picture (now in the National Gallery in London - see our article) had been painfully slow - a situation well known to many of his clients. In 1851, before delivering the first commission, he started work on this portrait which he uncharacteristically completed within a year, probably as an act of contrition following complaints from the sitters husband. The London portrait was not delivered for another five years.

Contemporary Works

1851 Gustave Courbet: Burial at Ornans, Paris, Musée du Louvre

1851 John Everett Millais: The Woodman’s Daughter, London, Guildhall Art Gallery

Further Paintings of Interest

Madame X

John Singer Sargent

The Bellelli Family

Edgar Degas

The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck

© Great Works of Western Art 2018