Pablo Picasso, "Woman with a Book" (1932), oil on canvas, 51.38 x 38.5 inches. The Norton Simon Foundation (© Succession Picasso/DACS 2021; photo The Norton Simon Foundation)

LONDON — Can two paintings an entire exhibition make? Can we wrest much from so little? Yes. Especially when it is a Spaniard called Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) squaring up to a Frenchman called Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) in Face to Face in Room 46 of London’s National Gallery.

An exhibition of two portraits, the later almost mirrors the earlier in certain vital respects. Ingres’s is a characteristic tour de force of portraiture, made with maximum prowess at the height of his fame, and at the height of his powers as the great neoclassical painter of his age. 

It shows the comfortably cosseted Madame Moitessier, wife of a rich dealer in fat and thin cuban cigars. The husband commissioned the portrait as a depiction of his lovely new wife. He had not accounted for Ingres’s reluctance to press ahead at speed. Begun in 1842, it was almost 12 long years in the making, from start to finish — oh yes, it was completed in the end. Why so unwillingly though? 

The Moitessiers were not exactly royalty. Had Ingres not painted royalty? Had Ingres not painted Napoleon on his throne? Well then. Ingres wanted to find fame as a history painter. Portraits were a terrible distraction. And so he stopped and he started. He stopped and he started. He didn’t go to her — she was not grand enough for that. She came to him, to his studio. 

What is more, though comely enough, she represented the fleetingness of two-a-penny, fashionable, nouveau riche modernity. The husband was furious, of course. Ingres, being Ingres, remained as stubborn as ever, although he did throw the husband a bone. He painted a second portrait of Madame Moitessier, in double-quick time, presenting herself as a gorgeous trophy wife preparing for a grand social occasion, and sold him that one too. Which slowed the beggar down. 

The difficulty for poor, much-in-demand Ingres is that he had agreed to do the first portrait only because he had been introduced to her by a dear friend, and had found the lovely, newly married madame so personable. Perhaps, after all, he could show, with some subtlety, a bond of some kind between them. That could interest him. And it did — in the end.

With Picasso, it was quite otherwise. Picasso never lingered. Malingered? Perhaps. But lingered. Never. That was why 12,000 paintings by him survive, and the Picasso Foundation, ably steered by his grandson Bernard, drips with money. Picasso chanced upon his model in the street. We can do great things together, he told her. Which included drawings and paintings. Marie-Therese Walter was very beautiful in Picasso’s eyes. She also had a very beguiling nose. She was 17, a mere schoolgirl, and Picasso was married when they met. He slotted her into the household, and then began to paint her over and over. This painting was made when they were several years into their relationship — and it directly refers to that great portrait by Ingres, which he eventually finished in 1854. Picasso took two days maximum to paint his (according to the curator).

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Madame Moitessier” (1856), oil on canvas, 47.24 x 36.26 inches (© The National Gallery, London)

These two paintings hang a yard or so from each other, on the same wall. Otherwise, barring a few words of interpretation and a well-sculpted yellow line, the gallery is completely empty. They have certain fundamental characteristics in common. The sitters’ pose is the most obvious and the most eye-catching feature, how they are seated face forward, right arms raised, index finger pushing into the side of the head — Marie-Therese’s finger lands at her upper cheek (just beside its pinkish blush), Madame Moitessier’s at the temple, tamping down her brown hair. Madame holds a closed fan, Marie-Therese a book, fanning open. In other respects too, there is much to separate them. 

Consider the seamless smoothness of the surface of the Ingres painting. All the roughness of the world has been soothed away. The sheer serenity of this painted surface adds to the general mood of restraint, decorum, and propriety. Madame Moitessier, Ingres suggests, is a becalmed sea of a woman, richly bedizened, well cosseted by luxury. See how well her plump upper arm is settled into the back of that puffed up chair. (Ingres was asked to reduce her plumpness somewhat. He obliged.) Picasso’s young lover is far from calm or serenely settled. How he ratchets up the temperature! This is a scene of spent, post-coital frenzy — see how her nipples trumpet their presence as they peek out over that gauzy, transparent negligee. The surface of Picasso’s portrait is roughened, pocky, granular. Marie-Therese’s very presence seems to tilt and lean, restlessly. The colors of the Ingres are many and they are modulated and richly, evenly spread. Picasso flings down shrieking panels of contrasting color, glary, blary, provocative. Each portrait also includes an act of mirroring, the presence of a second framed portrait at its back, keeping a watchful eye. Ingres’s pretends to be a reflection of the seated model, except that its angle of view is frankly impossible. She is perhaps a variant pose, Madame Moitessier as a prideful goddess of antiquity. Picasso does not try to show off his model at all for a second time. Framed at her back we see a voyeuristic male gaze looming into view, a silhouette of himself perhaps.   

Picasso first saw Ingres’s portrait at an exhibition in Paris in 1921. It was all of 11 years later that he made this response. He had met Marie-Therese Walter for the first time in 1927. This is among the finest of the many representations he made of her. They were all furiously laid down. That was his way. 

Ingres kept on and on, changing, adding, fussing over how he should present this fascinating and clever woman to the world. That was his way. This magnificent dress was repainted very late — in its entirety. It had been a blaze of unmodulated yellow before. He had a belated change of mind. He made her as fashionable and up to the minute as she perhaps deserved to be. There is a tiny putto that seems to be sliding down from behind her naked left shoulder. Is that Ingres himself, ever careful with the smallest detail?

Picasso Ingres: Face to Face continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through October 9. The exhibition travels to the Norton Simon Museum (411 West Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, California), where it will be on view from October 21, 2022 to January 30, 2023. It was curated by Christopher Riopelle and organized in partnership with the Norton Simon Museum.

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...

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