For an artist, there is no more visually exciting experience than to "lose" oneself in a great art museum. In fact, some are so "great" that "losing oneself" is quite literally a problem. And anyone who had ever taken a group of young people to a great art museum can think of little else. I once questioned a group of boys on the way home from just such a foray as to why they had so obviously enjoyed themselves. One told me, in so many words, "Where else can you go around staring at pictures of naked women and no one gets on your case about it?" He has a point of course. I had earlier noticed this group gravitating toward the "French quarter" of the museum and particularly the work of the Neo-classical and Romantic artists such as Jean-Auguste Ingres, François Gérard, and Jean Broc, three of their country's most notorious painters of "naked women." For centuries, art has been a respectable safe haven for those of all ages who wanted to admire, or perhaps "stare" at the nude figure without someone "getting on their case about it," as my adolescent friend so succinctly put it.
As my teenage art lovers quickly discovered, the early nineteenth century is an interesting case study in this area. And Jean-Auguste Ingres (pronounced Ang) is a critical art figure of this time. Born in 1780, he was the star pupil of the Neo-classical painting icon, Jacques-Louis David. His early work is quite conservative, replete with graceful portraits, a stunning ability to handle printed fabric, and a taste for dramatic allegory. But Ingres is also a transitional figure. Though his work never approached the loose brushwork or lavish colour of Delacroix, nor depicted the shocking, "gory" details of Géricault, he was such a pivotal figure in French art for the first two-thirds of this tempestuous century we can get a real handle on what was happening in the painting capital of the world at the time by studying his 67 years of work.
What was happening, of course, was the zenith of Academic art, and within it, a "French Revolution" of sorts as Ingres at first fought, then accepted, then promoted the Romantic movement in painting. Gérard's Psyche Receives Cupid's First Kiss, painted in 1796, was the opening shot in this revolution. It was classical, yet clearly Romantic in its blatant eroticism. Broc's The Death of Hyacinthus, painted in 1801 even adds a homoerotic Romantic broadside to the dominance of reserved Classicism of the time. In 1808, Ingres seems to be "accepting" of this new art in his Oedipus and the Sphinx, his first classical nude (male by the way) in which his Greek hero confronts the bare-breasted lion goddess, solving her riddle, which leads to her suicide. Oedipus of course, goes on to unwittingly fall in love with his own mother, whom he marries, which leads to her suicide once she finds out--classical mythology, but pretty tragic stuff, and typical of Romantic art. By 1818, Ingres had (philosophically at least) fully joined the Romantic movement with his Roger Freeing Angelica, a Renaissance tale developed into a full-fledged Romantic epic in which he demonstrates his own devotion to the female nude. The boys seemed pretty devoted to it too. I must confess, if you haven't realised it by now, this period of French art has always been one of my favourites as well, ever since I was a teenage boy.