My Daily Art Display today is a portrait of a fifteen year old French girl, Caroline Rivière, which was painted by French neo-classical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1806 and can be found hanging in the Louvre, Paris. Regrettably the story attached to this painting of this youthful beauty has a sad ending, but more of that later.
Ingres was born in 1780, the son of a small time miniature-painter and sculptor, Josef Ingres, from whom he learnt the basics of art and music. His formal academic life started at the Toulouse Academy of Art at the age of eleven and at the same time he kept up his musical training by taking violin lessons. He went to Paris at the age of sixteen where he was a student of Antoine-Jean Gros at the studio of Jaques-Louis David. In 1801 he won the Prix de Rome for his painting Ambassadors of Agamemnon. The Prix de Rome was a scholarship, founded concurrently with the French Academy in Rome, that enabled prize-winning students at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris to spend a period, usually 4 years, in Rome studying art, at the state’s expense. Unfortunately for Ingres, because of the financial problems with the French economy, he was not awarded his trip to Rome until 1807. It was during his stay in Paris from 1801 to 1807, before heading for Rome, that he completed his first portraits. Some were of wealthy dignitaries such as the portrait, Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne which hangs in the Musée de l’Armée, Paris and some where of himself and his friends such as his Self Portrait at the Age of 24, which is housed in the Musée Condé in Chantilly.
It was around this time that he was commissioned by a court official, Philibert Rivière, to commemorate himself, his wife, Marie-Francois and their fifthteen year old daughter Caroline. Ingres at the time, had a passion for classical paintings with subjects based on history or Greek legends, but as he had to eke out a living, he painted portraits for clients and so accepted the commission.
Ingres was fascinated by the young girl and was quoted as describing her as “ravishing”. The portrait entitled Mademoiselle Rivière is My Daily Art Display for today. It is a three-quarter length portrait. Her young age is not immediately obvious to the viewer. Look closer though and one can detect a childlike femininity. She looks out at us in her virginal-white muslin dress with a large white ermine boa over her arms. The bodice which was all the fashion at the time struggles to give an illusion of cleavage. She appears to be quite self-conscious or maybe that is the expression she wanted to give to retain an air of respectability. There is an overwhelming element of purity in Ingres’s depiction of her or is there? This portrait is not completely devoid of sensuality. Look at the way Ingres has painted her full red lips, her bared neck and porcelain-like white skin which gives her slight and childlike body a sensuality of which she may not even have understood. Her gloved arms give Caroline a hint of sophistication and she is at an age when she is neither child nor woman. You could almost say she was the unfinished article.
However, it has to be remembered that her portrait was to hang next to those of her parents and therefore Ingres had to be careful on how he portrayed her. She must come over as being an intelligent young lady of good breeding and most of all a credit to her parents who have lavished so much upon her. This painting may be as much about her parents as it is of herself. It may be a statement of the family wealth and the quality of life the three of them can afford to enjoy.
It was, along with the portraits of her father and mother, exhibited at the Paris Salon, the greatest annual art event in the Western world, in 1806. The art world greeted this painting with mixed reviews; many disliked it for its “Gothicness” because of its linear precision and enamel-like finish. It was also disapproved of because of its similarity to Early Netherlandish paintings and the French art critics of the time looked upon these painters from the Nertherlands as Les Primitifs Flamands. Ingres’s also had many detractors who were critical of the painting saying that the proportions were not right. They said that her head was too large, her neck was too long and curiously broad, her eyes were too far apart, which made her nose look flat and excessively long as it flows uninterrupted into her brow. Although “puffed” botoxed lips are all the rage now, critics said that Ingres had made Caroline’s lower lip too fat which drew people’s attention to the lower part of her face which is petite in comparison to the span of her forehead. The critics also deemed that there was a noticeable lack of definition to her shoulders.
The background is secondary to the portrait itself and is a mainly bluish-white in colour featuring an Ile de France landscape with a distant town across the wide river. There is freshness about the landscape and it must be presumed that Ingres wanted it to echo the fresh adolescence of his subject.
And so I return to the beginning when I said there was sadness to today’s painting. Here we see in front of us a young girl, the daughter of a wealthy family, with everything to live for. The sadness is that within a year of this painting being exhibited she was dead.