In room 46 of the London National Gallery, two portraits hang, one by classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the other by Pablo Picasso. Ingres’s portrait is of society beauty, Madame Moitessier (1856). Picasso’s portrait, several metres away, is of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, entitled Woman with a Book (1932).
You may wonder why these works have been given their own room at the National Gallery. The answer is simple. In this miniscule show, entitled Picasso Ingres: Face to Face, art lovers are being invited to explore the story behind these two interrelated paintings. This is the first time they have been brought together. Picasso’s Woman with a Book normally resides at the Norton Simon Museum, California, whereas Ingres’s Madame Moitessier belongs to the National Gallery.
Picasso was an admirer of Ingres and came across Madame Moitessier’s portrait at a Paris exhibition in 1921. Though he was struck immediately by its beauty, its impact on his own painting wouldn’t become apparent until eleven years later, when he felt inspired to paint his young muse, Walter. Walter was to adopt the same ‘finger’ pose as Moitessier in Ingres’s portrait.
When viewing the two paintings, the head-finger pose jumps out at you. In her opulent drawing room, Madame Moitessier elegantly rests her temple on the index and third finger of her raised hand. Similarly, Marie-Thérèse Walter mimics her enigmatic predecessor in her minimalist setting.
Ingres’s idea for the finger pose came from a Roman fresco he had viewed: Hercules finding his Son Telephos, before AD79. Taking his inspiration from antiquity, Ingres endowed Moitessier with heroic and divine qualities.
In deciding to emulate Ingres, Picasso’s intentions were similar, but the result was quite different for this twentieth century artist. Picasso’s influence and presence is felt everywhere in Walter’s portrait. Walter’s finger-pose is not elegant but minxy and playful. She wears a lacy negligée where two perfectly rounded breasts peek out. By contrast, mature mother, Moitessier, bares her fine neck and shoulders and conceals the rest beneath the folds of a magnificent silk dress.
Both Ingres and Picasso make use of reflections. We see Mme Moitessier’s profile and her 19th century headdress of lace and ribbons in the mirror. Walter’s loose hair meanwhile is a block of green and white paint, but even in this reductive semi-abstract style, we feel its lushness and weight. Walter’s reflected profile is so mannish that some believe it to be Picasso’s.
Finally, Ingres’s women have smooth skins of alabaster and Mme Moitessier’s is flawless. As a nod to Ingres’s signature skin, Picasso has painted half of Walter’s face white.
This mini show artfully displays the mechanisms of artistic inspiration and how a finger pose from a Roman fresco inspired both Ingres and Picasso to create two fascinating portraits. The very different goddesses they created have enduring appeal.
Picasso-Ingres Face to Face is on at the National Gallery until 9th October 2022.
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