Picasso Ingres: Face to Face at the National Gallery Review – a tiny but illuminating exhibition of masterpieces

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oom 46 at the National Gallery is an intimate space, just the size to view a few works nearby. Not long ago, it hosted Gainsborough’s Blue Boy alongside the Van Dyck portraits that had inspired it. Now we find only two paintings side by side, by Ingres and Picasso, separated by more than 80 years in time and a revolution in art form. And yet, one undeniably derives from the other.

Madame Moitessier is an opulent figure, painted in the grand formal style, with a finger at the temple, less supporting the head than indicating repose. Her expression is enigmatic, with a Mona Lisa smile. And thank goodness for the expanse of white chest and shoulders that separates her face from her dress, because her dress is made of the kind of exuberant floral pattern, with matching trim, a bow, fringe and a huge brooch, which would overwhelm a less Junoesque silhouette. Bare arms only accentuate the bracelets of many gems. Now this is ostentatious consumption: Mr. Moitessier got his money’s worth in his wife’s Lyonnaise silk dress. And for good measure, we also have the lady from behind, her elaborate lace hair ornament visible in the mirror.

Channeling Ingres was, for Picasso, a habit, but what is interesting is what he extracts from the portrait of Ingres. Indeed, the gestation of painting was long; he painted it in 1932, 11 years after seeing the Ingres, hidden from the public for 40 years. But far from the portrait of a respectable and devout married woman, we find in Woman with a Book his young mistress, Marie Thérèse Walter.

The latent sensuality of the original is replaced by the casual, unconscious sexuality of the blond girl: it doesn’t take long for the eye to land on the white orbs with scarlet nipples, presented rather than obscured by underwear in black lace, which somehow escaped her green dress. The pose is unmistakable, the famous languorous fingers apart. The portrait is a riot of bold, brash blocks of color, most fabulously scarlet and armchair orange. But the shadowy reflection has a refined enigmatic profile.

The Picasso is then anything but a copy of the Ingres: it’s about as different as it gets, but the similarities are unmistakable. And what we find in the catalog is that there was a common denominator for the two portraits, a Roman fresco from Herculaneum that Ingres and Picasso admired, showing the figure of Arcadia, the fingers resting on the temple, detached expression, and two beautiful bracelets on her bare arms.

As an exploration of how artists inspire and inspire each other from antiquity, this little show is illuminating. On the walls two quotes take stock. “Who is among the great who has not imitated? asks Ingres. Picasso, for his part, observes that a true artist does not borrow; he steals. But if it’s theft, it’s also the transmutation of loot: that is to say, it’s a tribute.

National Gallery Room 46, from June 3 to October 9, nationalgallery.org.uk

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