The National Gallery, London / The Norton Simon Foundation, Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
It is said that Pablo Picasso once said: “Little artists borrow; great artists steal”. Or appropriate? Chip? Quotation? Pinch? Steal cuts to the chase though. But in the case of these two great artists, they certainly honor, imitate, learn and study. In studying these two portraits, two curators – one at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the other at the National Gallery in London – found some interesting differences and similarities.
Exhibited together for the first time in London, the paintings are now featured in Pasadena in the exhibition Picasso Ingres: Face to Face.
Similarities. What do you notice ? Two women seated in armchairs, patterned dresses, their heads resting lightly in their hands. Each has a mirror on the wall.
Differences: one is rich, the other less. One holds a fan, the other a book. We are looked at directly (but not so warmly). The other gazes dreamily into the distance – away from the artist. One has a Mona Lisa smile, the other has small rosebud lips. We are zaftig, we say hello.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was at the top of his game when he painted Madame Moitessier in 1856. The portrait was commissioned by his family (paid for by her cigar merchant husband) and it took Ingres twelve years to complete. . Life and other commissions interrupted.
Picasso was the world’s most famous painter when he painted this portrait of his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1932.
He painted her obsessively that year. When they met in 1927, she was 17, he was 45. Norton Simon curator Emily Talbot says she spotted her outside a department store. “She had this classic Greek look that she was interested in,” says Talbot.
The portrait only took him a day or two to do. And his pose, the chair, the mirror are homages to Ingres. Picasso had admired the French master for decades. He saw Ingres’ works in the Louvre and saw this one – the portrait of Madame Moitessier – in person at a major Parisian exhibition in 1921. “But he didn’t riff there until 1932,” explains the curator of the National Gallery in London, Christopher Riopelle. It therefore took time to tackle Ingres with Marie-Thérèse as Woman with a book.
Evidence of Ingres’ influence (that’s what art curators love to do): Emily Talbot says that when Picasso and his artist friends spotted Madame Moitessier at the Paris exhibition “they were kind of bowled over by what they saw. Until then, they didn’t ‘I don’t understand how strange Ingres was.’
The National Gallery, London
Art critics of the time certainly thought so and criticized the 19th century painter for all his discrepancies – the anatomically incorrect and overly long arms; his boned hands (although the curator says in the preparatory drawings “he shows the bends and joints of his fingers. It is not until he gets to the painting stage that the hands become more elastic”. For me, they are hobby class hands; they don’t do hard work).
Well, some Parisian critics pooped, but Picasso and his friends loved the hands, the incorrect anatomy, the variations – the deviations – from formal and academic precision. Ingres has been called “the founder of modernism”. Of course, Picasso would connect with that. And look at the hands he gives to Marie-Thérèse. The fingers on his right hand look like dangerous bangs, and he cuts off part of them so we can see his pretty jowl. “I think Picasso was unbothered in making adjustments to the naturalistic anatomical depiction,” says Talbot.
There is no trace of how, more than 75 years apart, the two models felt the representation that the great painters of their century have of them. But bringing them together, in our time, gives 21st-century viewers an idea of the styles, talents and artistic values of the art-makers whose work has become influential and permanent.
The art where you are is a casual series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.