Two paintings face the public together, posing as a sort of enigmatic “find the 7 differences” game. Because after all, we are looking at two very similar images: a woman, adorned with a flowery dress, contemplates us from the comfort of her red couch. Her finger is mellowly pointed at her temple and despite the incredibly rich background, her presence is what dominates the whole painting, as her face appears a second time in the reflection of a mirror. The two women are communicating something very similar, and yet the differences between them could not be more obvious. Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “Madame Moitessier” is the 1856 portrait of a rich banker’s wife that celebrates textures, colours and opulence. Picasso’s 1932 “Woman with a book” is a sensual and intimate representation of his young lover, Marie Thérèse Walter, in the artist’s distinctive experimental post-cubist style. The new exposition “Picasso Ingres: Face to Face” at the National Gallery has borrowed the Picasso painting from the Norton Simon Museum in California to show these two paintings together for the first time. A parallel is drawn between the two works, which challenges the viewer: Are these paintings similar? Or are they complete opposites? Where does originality stand in imitation?
Ingres’s “Madame Moitessier” was a commissioned portrait of Inès Moitessier, that the artist accepted to take only once he met Madame and was struck by her gracious appearance. A beauty that he celebrates with all the voluptuousness imaginable: ivory skin, flushed cheeks, a soft hand limply laying on her lap, a fleshy chest with an impossibly thin waist. The richness and sensuality of the woman are reflected through the abundance of silks and golds in the decor, although the most striking aspect of the painting is undoubtedly her flowery dress. Colourful patterns, crinolines, precious stones and laces are painted in such detail and abundance that it is difficult to decide where to direct our attention. The intricacy of the dress alone might explain why Ingres took no less than twelve years to finish his masterpiece.
Picasso was reportedly a big admirer of Ingres’s work, and was especially intrigued by “Madame Moitessier”. He decided to paint his very own madame, Marie Thérèse Walter, in a more modern, sensual take: the lace of the dress is transparent, the breasts are exposed, the fan in her hand has been swapped by a book, and her position is more slouched, the room is more minimalistic. The classical art style has been swapped for a derivative Cubism, whilst the bright contrast between the colours is characteristic of Matisse’s influence. And yet the hand on the temple is still there, same as the piercing dark eyes and the mirror in the background.
Picasso copies whilst still creating an extremely personal and original masterpiece. As expressed by his own quote that appears on the wall next to the painting: “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”.
Overall, it is all a game of duality: two paintings, two women, two reflections on the mirrors, and two entirely different artists. The National Gallery has done incredible work at creating a game of parallelisms and contrasts between these two sides of the same coin. Get your free tickets at https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/picasso-ingres-face-to-face
Madame Moitessier, 1856, left, by Ingres, and Picasso’s Woman With a Book, 1932. Photograph: © The National Gallery, London; © Succession Picasso/DACS 2021 / photo The Norton Simon Foundation
Reviewed by Céline Galletti – Celine is a volunteer writer for Abundant Art. Originally from France and Italy, she follows her passion for writing and art by studying Comparative Literature at UCL, London. As an international student living in London, she is determined to fully experience and understand the city’s vibrant arts scene, and be a part of its creative storm.