Jean-August-Dominique Ingres
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
A Portrait Head of a Man in Profile, ca. 1797
Graphite on smooth, thin white paper
7.5 cm diameter
WA 1986.43

A Portrait Head of a Man in Profile (ca. 1797) of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) is a very accomplished drawing for a 17 year-old artist. Before entering the studio of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Ingres was a student at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture in Toulouse, during which he produced a series of commissioned portraits. In 1796 and 1797, just before leaving for Paris, he created several portrait roundels, and the drawing at the Ashmolean Museum is one of these. Because of the nature of profile, the contours of these drawings are bold, while the internal modeling is done with fine hatched lines. The small heads reveal a quality of precise and sharp observation, and remind us of cameos or miniature bas-reliefs of Antiquity.

Compared to his later portraits, Ingres’s profile drawings of the period are less linear in style and reveal more three-dimensionality. Such portraits might have been the result of his early Academic training in Toulouse, which concentrated on the mastery of sculptural drawing. It could also have resulted from his personal enthusiasm in Classical art. However, considering his young age, it would be more reasonable to look further into the common practice of portrait drawing of the time.

Probably inspired by antique coins and medal, profile portraits became a well-established tradition in the eighteenth-century, especially after Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger (1715-1790) popularized small round profiles in the second half of the century. Jacques-Louis David also produced them. Ingres’s drawing is modeled in the dense manner of the “plumbago”(derived from Plumbrum, ‘lead’ in Latin) miniaturists, whose works provided a cheaper alternative to the painted version from the late seventeenth century up to about 1720.

Unfortunately, the identity of Ingres’s sitter is unknown. The drawing was once exhibited as Portrait of a Legislator, but the costume appears more to be that of a military personnel. Interestingly, similar garb can be seen in Ingres’s several other portraits of his father and friends.

A head-and-shoulder view was generally understood to provide the essence of the model more efficiently by limiting the depiction of a fashionable costume, which would be outmoded eventually. But in this Ashmolean drawing, much attention was paid to the details of the garment. The ribbed silk coat with delicate embroidery and the scarf tied around the neck are all drawn with a myriad of lines to show the texture. Even the shadowed dark areas of the coat simply contain more lines, and are not smudged at all.

Those refined lines can also be seen on the extraordinary rendering of the light-weighted hair of the model. With some help from erasure for the highlighted areas, Ingres rendered each lock of hair precisely. Unruly hairs on the back of his head are also meticulously picture. Such careful drawing of hair can also be seen in the Study of a Girl’s Head of César-Paul Helleu, who was deeply influenced by Ingres.

Dramatic lighting was used to make the portrait more immediate. It is also worthy to point out how emphatic the pupil of the eye is. This, and the slight hint of smile on the subject’s mouth made this profile a gently enlivened portrait of intimate quality that otherwise would have been a coldly formal picture.

If the profile was produced at the very age, the scrutiny of the eye and the precise and prudent response of the hand required in producing such portrait might have been very important for the rest of the Master’s long career as a draughtsman and portraitist. A Portrait Head of a Man in Profile shows how the young Ingres personally approached the drawing with sincerity.

Jeehyun Lee