Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate to experience a series of wonderful “Ah-Ha!” moments when I’ve come across a new genre or artist that made me feel like I was opening my eyes on a new world.
Discovering the graphite portrait drawings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres when I was an art student was one of them.
Though he drew in most traditional drawing media, chalk, “crayon” and pen and ink, it was his graphite on paper portrait drawings that wowed me. They have an uncanny presence and weight that belie their actual technique.
Ingres was primarily a portrait painter, and is considered one of the best in the history of art.
His portrait drawings have that amazing character of faces rendered with such skill that they have a palpable personality, but lead your eye into economically rendered bodies and hands that are clearly lines on paper.
I love the sensation produced by the contrast of responding to a drawing as a personality, and within the space of the same drawing, responding to it as a drawing.
I’m not sure if my description is adequate to explain what I mean, but I think anyone who has experienced what I’m trying to describe will recognize the delight it can bring to those who love drawings. (For another example, see Rubens’ portrait drawing of Isabella Brant.)
It also astonishes me how tight and detailed the faces in Ingres’ portrait drawings look on first inspection, but how freely they are actually rendered when viewed more closely.
I’ve been lucky to have seen several of Ingres’ drawings in person; these are relatively rare opportunities as works on paper cannot be exposed to light for long periods without shortening their effective lifespan. Several of those occasions have been at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which counts several excellent examples of Ingres drawings in its permanent collection.
Those in the area can still catch an exhibition of sixteen of them titled Ingres at the Morgan, that is on display until November 27, 2011.
For those who can’t get to the museum in person, the Morgan has a terrific online feature, in which the drawings can be viewed in full-screen zoomable versions. The page of thumbnails is here. When viewing the detail page for an individual drawing, look for the inconspicuous “Full Screen” button at the right of the row of controls under the image.
There is also a nice accompanying feature on Ingres’ drawing materials and methods.
Ingres’ drawings may make you think differently about the capabilities of the humble graphite pencil.