The Bather of Valpinçon by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is located at Louvre in Paris. In this nude, Ingres has created what is surely one of the greatest shoulder portraits in the history of art. A work with the perfect balance between detachment and intimacy.
The Title of the Work
The painting is named after a collector who owned it before it was acquired by the Louvre in 1879. The original title is thought to have been simpler: The Seated Woman.
The story goes that Ingres was already one of the winners in 1801 of the famous Rome Prize of the French State. But the lack of funds and the economic and political instability of France in those years had prevented the trip to Italy.
Ingres will arrive in Rome years later, becoming a student of the French Academy between 1806 and 1810. Here in 1808 he painted The Bather of Valpinçon. The work was a manifesto of his progress as an artist and a demonstration to the French state that it had invested its funds well with the prize. Indeed, the winners had to send several works to Paris, so that the authorities could make sure they were making good use of state funding. This was one of the paintings Ingres chose to represent his progress.
The Bather of Valpinçon by Ingres. The ideal beauty
Its reception, like that of other early works by Ingres. it was fantastic. Some of the critics of the time endorsed his work. Those in favor believed that figures like this were missing from traditional art. In fact, women usually appeared rather thin and less shapely.
Ingres, however, looked beyond conventional naturalism and was quick to modify or exaggerate appearances for the sake of the work’s harmony. He was a very good draftsman and was able to accurately represent the anatomy of the human figure. But he had a high conception of art in which the imperfections of nature must be corrected to create an “ideal” beauty.
The Influence of Jacques-Louis David
This vision of ideal beauty was influenced by its Master, Jacques-Louis David. David was the main representative of the Neoclassicism in Painting. And his goal was to revive the spirit and style of the classical world of the Greeks and Romans. More important than David, however, is the effect Rome has on Ingres. Here he is inspired not only by the remains of ancient art. But also from Renaissance paintings and, above all, from the work of Raphael.
There is something in common between balance in classical art and the paintings of Raphael and David. Ingres loved these qualities. But, in some respects, he doesn’t want to be equal to his masters. In particular, he is much less interested in the study of perspective. And instead he prefers to represent beauty through drawing and line.
The Bather of Valpinçon by Ingres. The Woman’s Body
Thus in ‘ The Bather of Valpinçon , the artist is more interested in creating fluid contours from the woman’s body than in suggesting bone structure. All this is particularly evident in the right leg of the woman. The body here is gracefully drawn, but if we look closely, it appears to have been added immediately after the white cloths. Almost as if it was disconnected from the body.
The Bather of Valpinçon by Ingres. The composition of Ingres’s work
The Bather of Valpinçon is monumental, this derives from Ingres’ confidence in placing each form in the work. The solid verticals created by the drapes in the photo are subtly echoed in the sinuous shapes of the bather’s body. Line takes precedence over color, but shows great mastery in balancing the large masses of flesh and texture against each other.
The Bather of Valpinçon by Ingres. The details of the work
The large area of the back creates a set of majestic abstract shapes, but at the same time conveys the suppleness of living flesh. Ingres has always emphasized the primacy of drawing over colour. But in reality he often created fantastic color effects. When the painting was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855, the art critics Edmond and Jules de Goncourt compared Ingres to one of the greatest masters of painting: “Rembrandt himself would have envied the amber color of this pale torso”.
The Turban and the Face
The bather’s face is only partially visible, so attention is drawn even more to her striped headdress. Turbans first appear in European paintings from the 1400s. And in Ingres’ time they often appeared in an art current called Orientalism. This term describes the fashion for images inspired by the Near and Middle East and North Africa. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 had obviously been an accelerator for the fashion. This had flourished in several European countries, especially France. Some other nudes by Ingres are more related to the Orientalist tradition, and depict odalisques (slaves or concubines in a harem).
The smooth, taut outline of the left shoulder embodies Ingres’s idealistic approach to the representation of the female body. All the angularities and irregularities found in a real body, indicating the presence of bones and tendons under the skin, are here replaced by a perfect shoulder.
Elbow and Drapery
Elaborate folds of white drapery are wrapped around the bather’s left elbow. Ingres probably only included the drape here for pictorial reasons. To soften what would otherwise have been the sharp edge of the elbow and provide a contrast in color and texture to the bather’s skin.
Ingres was a superb painter of curtains. Here, the curtains, with their dark color and deep pleats, help emphasize the bather’s flawless skin. There is a marble column at the bottom of The Bather of Valpinçon. Here Ingres signed and dated the work.
The Lion’s Head
The only noticeable movement in the painting comes from the jet of water flowing from the ornate spout into the basin. The setting of the painting is out of time and space. Instead, this small detail suggests an exotic society, distant from the artist.
Leg and Drapery
Ingres had an extraordinarily fine technique: one of his best-known comments on art is that a paint surface should be as smooth as “the skin of an onion”. His meticulousness is evident in the forms made of this detail.
Connections to other works
Ingres was a perfectionist who often elaborated on his favorite themes over and over again. In the painting The Turkish Bath, in 1863, for example, one of the main figures is clearly derived from The Bather of Valpinçon. Even if there the main character plays a mandolin. The Turkish bath is a masterpiece created by Ingres when he is now around 60 years old. But the ideas taken from The Bather of Valpinçon more than half a century earlier are many.
input The artist’s story
Ingres’ long career was divided mainly between Paris and Italy, where he lived between 1806-1824 and 1835-1841.
He began his first Italian period as a student at the French Academy in Rome, and spent his second period as director of the Academy. In the early part of his career, his work is controversial. it is in fact considered extravagant by the more conservative critics.
But over time, in his old age he becomes one of the most admired figures in French art. In addition to being one of the greatest portrait painters of the female nude, he is famous for his paintings of historical, mythological and religious subjects and as a portrait painter. Ingres left a great many works (made by himself and other artists) to his hometown of Montauban. There is now a museum dedicated to him here.
Cover: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Bather of Valpinçon, oil on canvas, 1808, Louvre, Paris