Ingres The Apotheosis of Homer
slide Ingres The Apotheosis of Homer
Artist: Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres
Artist’s Lifespan: 1780 – 1867
Title: The Apotheosis of Homer
Location of Origin: France
Medium: Oil on canvas
Original Size: 12 ft 8 in x 16 ft 11 in
Location: Louvre, Paris
From website http://www.newmusicclassics.com/orpheus_18.html
J.-A.-D. Ingres was a direct heir to the neoclassicism of David, in whose studio at the age of twenty he had become a pupil and aide. A recipient of the highly coveted Prix de Rome in 1801, Ingres ‘s studies in Italy had to be postponed until 1807 due to the precarious state of the French economy. He remained in Italy for some years after the conclusion of his four years of study, assimilating the historical art and architecture at Rome, Florence, and other cities. When his fortunes were reversed by the poor reception of The Martyrdom of St Symphorian (Salon, 1834), Ingres returned to Rome and assumed the directorship of the French School, where he remained for seven more years. Upon his return to France, his former place of honor as a disciple of David and artistic scion of Raphael was happily restored, and Ingres continued to produce outstanding work well into his old age.
To David ‘s classical austerity Ingres brought an extraordinary calligraphic virtuosity and an almost paradoxically sensuous quality (particularly evident in his numerous female nudes), even though he rigorously eschewed the passionate intensity and violence evident in the work of such contemporary romantic painters as Delacroix and G'ricault. These qualities endeared Ingres to many in the Parisian arts establishment and brought him an abundance of important commissions and honors.
The Apotheosis of Homer (1827), a work commissioned for the ceiling of a room containing Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre, is one of Ingres ‘s most astonishing masterpieces (appendix 1, no. 35).
It is also a work of considerably greater complexity than first meets the eye. By assembling in a single composition a representative body of some of the greatest artists and intellectuals in Western history — from the time of Homer through the Imperial Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the French Baroque, and the contemporary France of Charles X — Ingres established an unimpeachable aesthetic lineage for himself and by extension for the neoclassical movement itself.
Stephen Eisenman alleges that Ingres’s Apotheosis represents nothing more than an erasure of historic and artistic difference and dissonance and the substitution of a bland and conflict-free Classicism. What remains, he asserts, is merely costume, clich', and hollow splendor, a crude pastiche in which various rigidly posed figures awkwardly crowded on the canvas fail to relate meaningfully with one another or the viewer:
Figures are ranked in rigid bands echoing the horizontal and vertical steps in the foreground and columns in the background; they hold hands but fail to interact or engage the viewer, despite the grotesquely abbreviated repoussoirs in the extreme foreground. Can there be any other explanation for the flatness, awkwardness, and stiltedness of the picture than that Ingres was recording — poignantly, reluctantly, perhaps even helplessly — the breakdown in the authority of the Classical tradition in the modern world ?1
I find these arguments unconvincing for several reasons:
The painting was expressly commissioned for the ceiling of the Louvre ‘s recently remodeled Salle Clarac, a space designated for the display of antiquities. It thus served both a decorative and educational function, and the artist, much like an architect, was obliged to work with extraordinary physical and programmatic constraints in mind. It was not the purpose of such a commissioned work to be polemical, or to probe the psychological subtleties of Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Michelangelo, or Shakespeare. The Apotheosis was certainly not intended to draw undue attention to itself at the expense of the rare objects exhibited below, but would have been required to show considerable balance and emotional restraint, i.e., to be classical in the most ascetic sense of that word. Ingres was well aware of the requirements for such a project, and fulfilled them admirably.
Raphael, whom Ingres held in the highest esteem, was compelled for obvious compositional reasons to exclude many worthies from his School of Athens (1510 – 11). Ingres was faced with the even more daunting task of creating a harmonious composition representative of the entire history of Western art, both pre – and post – Raphael. By dint of logic and necessity, this new work could not include the vast majority of Western artists. Ingres may well have chosen to depict his personal favorites, or perhaps specific artists and thinkers were suggested to him by those commissioning the work. However, the resulting cast of characters, though extremely numerous, remains fairly representative. Any viewer familiar with the works and ideas of those luminaries portrayed in The Apotheosis would have been able to invest each figure with as much complexity and vitality as his own personal fund of knowledge could muster.
By any and all accounts, The Apotheosis is certainly one of Ingres ‘s most unusual pictures. It posed some uniquely formidable technical and compositional challenges, and the results can only be fairly evaluated within the architectural interior context for which it was intended. The suggestion that this picture documents either consciously or unconsciously the breakdown in the authority of the Classical tradition is simply insupportable.
In addition to the above, Ingres was faced with some particularly difficult stylistic problems in this painting. To the extent that contemporary portraits of those shown in his illustrious assembly were available and sufficiently well – known, Ingres doubtless felt obliged to use them. One of the most recent historical figures in The Apotheosis, painter Nicolas Poussin, whose image is shown in the lower left, died more than a hundred years before Ingres was even born. Fortunately, Ingres had access to the early baroque artist ‘s self – portrait of 1650, which he reproduced with astounding stylistic precision (appendix 1, no. 36).
But what about those figures for whom no contemporary portraits were available ? Was Ingres ‘s selection affected by the availability of relevant iconographic material 'or even the lack thereof ?
Homer himself occupies the center of the canvas, enthroned in glory and about to receive the laurel crown which Winged Victory bestows upon him. There are no images of Homer extant from the eighth century B.C., but several imaginary portrait busts survive from late antiquity with which Ingres was familiar.
Ingres also had access to self – portraits by Raphael, whom the ancient painter Apelles leads by the hand in the left middle ground. Consequently, Ingres was able to create a fair profile of the Italian Renaissance master. Apelles, on the other hand, who may well have been the first portrait painter, is entirely a product of Ingres ‘s artistic imagination. None of his work — nor any contemporary portrait of him — has survived.
Reconciling the divergent styles of extant historical portraits and combining these with imaginary portraits representing individuals from different periods would pose formidable difficulties for even the greatest artist. The remarkable degree to which Ingres ‘s eclectic historicism was successful in meeting this challenge is certainly a tribute to his rare genius.
Reclining against the pedestal on which Homer sits are allegorical representations of The Iliad (with sword at hand) and The Odyssey (with an oar resting in her lap). These central figures comprise a distinct pyramidal composition within the work as a whole that has rightly been compared by Eisenman to the sculptural group decorating Michelangelo’s Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici. The forty personages in Homer ‘s distinguished retinue include various poets, philosophers, painters, architects, sculptors, musicians, and national heroes, among them Aeschylus, Apelles, Bernini, Boileau, Dante, Euripides, Hesiod, Linus, Moli're, Orpheus, Phidias, Pindar, Poussin, Racine, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Tasso, Virgil, and Voltaire.
The figures behind Homer are less distinct than the repoussoirs and those standing (or seated) in the middle ground, thus creating a sense of receding space which may have been accentuated by the ceiling of the Salle Clarac. Ingres was not attempting to imply a similar recession in time, as Eisenman evidently believes: many of the most ancient figures, including Homer himself, remain sharp and clear, whereas one can catch only a glimpse of seventeenth – century architect and sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini over Homer ‘s left shoulder. The gaily festooned hexastyle Ionic temple serves as a fitting backdrop for the august company Ingres has so felicitously disposed before it.
For all his passionate traditionalism, Ingres was hardly averse to innovation. He was actually one of the first painters to make use of a new synthetic ultramarine shortly after it was introduced to artists.
M'rim'e, upon reporting in 1828 about the success of Guimet ‘s artificial variety, added that Ingres had used it on the drapery of a principle figure in The Apotheosis of Homer (Mus'e Charles X, the Louvre) of 1827.