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Ingres's portraits unveil history and celebrity

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Imagine an artistic career spanning the revolution that ended the French monarchy, the absolute rule of Napoleon, his exile, the Second Empire of Napoleon's nephew, the invention of the steam engine, Darwin, Karl Marx, and the birth of a new class of incredibly wealthy captains of industry.

Jean Dominique Ingres lived through and captured those times with hundreds of portrait commissions recording the faces, costumes, and subtle hierarchies. The dyed-in-the-wool academic painter and classicist's mature years spanned 1800 to 1867.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is hosting, through Aug. 22, a sumptuous show, "Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch," 40 jaw-dropping portraits and about 60 equally amazing graphite drawings. The exhibit then will travel to the National Gallery in London, and finally to the Metropolitan Museum in New York next year.

The exhibition catalog deals candidly with the implications of such a one-sided picture of privilege. What is fascinating is that Ingres's generation included Beethoven and Lord Byron; it was an era when Europe, disillusioned with war and absolutism, embraced personal expression, creative license, and the exotic and fantastic. But Ingres would have none of it. "Let me hear no more of that absurd maxim that we need the new ... have the passions of the human heart changed since Homer?" he said.

Ingres was an impeccable draftsman, the poster boy for clean, clear images that reflect the spirit of classical Greece. But the gorgeous portraits, though highly idealized (there is not a mole or flaw to be found), don't adhere to the anatomical accuracy we associate with classical art.

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