Ingres, secrets of the ennobling portrait

Nobody did neoclassical better than the French, in my humble opinion. And almost no French painter did it better than Ingres, despite the vast majority of his work being commissioned portraits.

In his perfect, economical lines you can see the natural ennobling of each subject. The subtle choice of selecting only the most important detail, the flattening of tone and colour to only the most crucial, and the hint of nobility and proportion from Greek statuary. That is what neoclassical painting is all about, creating that essence of human-as-microcosm-to-the-universe, the suggestion of the innate grandeur in the commonplace. Painting subjects as though they were a Phidias frieze.

And how to make a portrait subject immortal, as a bust of Homer? It is not the cheap and tawdry ‘realism’ that we must suffer in our own woeful age (the paint-by-numbers reaction to abstract Modernism). Although a firm grasp of painting light and reality is required.

Examine his drawing, the absolute perfection of the single stroke, used sparsely. The Hellenic idealism of the bodies, the ratios in the torso’s, the expression.

It goes well beyond the illusion of capturing the visual, it is to know and understand the application of style, to immortalize the subject, and yourself as an artist. It is the perfect confidence in knowing what to paint, what to leave out, and how, without cheap flattery, to give that sense of tradition – that is, the eternal.


Each of his paintings is a lesson in idealism beyond the subject.