Museoteca - The Bather, known as the Valpinçon Bather, Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique
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Work information

Title: The Bather, known as the Valpinçon Bather
Artist: Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique
Technique: Oil on canvas

This work featuring a bathing woman is generally known by the name of one of its nineteenth-century owners. It was one of the works Ingres sent to Paris in 1808 when he was studying at the French Academy in Rome. This early work is a masterpiece of harmonious lines and delicate light. The woman's superb nude back left a deep impression on the artist; he returned to it in several later works, most notably the Turkish Bath.

This Seated Woman, as the painting was originally titled, is one of the three works Ingres was required to send to Paris as a student at the French Academy in Rome (the other two being a Half-length portrait of a woman bathing, 1807, now in the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne, and an Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808, now in the Louvre). It was an odd choice of subject for a student at the Academy. The few critics who commented on the work were unimpressed. Ingres's paintings had already caused a scandal at the 1806 Salon, particularly his Portrait of Napoleon I (Musée de l'Armée, Paris), punningly described as the "empereur mal-ingre" (the emperor looking a bit ill) and a barbarian piece of work, and his portraits of the Rivière family (Louvre). It was not until the Universal Exhibition in 1855 that the work received favorable notice from critics, including the Goncourt brothers, who wrote, "Rembrandt himself would have envied the amber color of this pale torso."

"I was misled, Sirs, and I had to begin my education again." This is how Ingres described the shock of his first journey to Italy. Throughout his career he would divide his time between France and Italy, where he was director of the Villa Médicis from 1835 to 1841; the Valpinçon Bather is one of the earliest paintings reflecting the influence Italy had on him. She is depicted nude, seen from behind, with a red sandal lying forgotten by her side. There is no mythological reference serving as pretext for the nude: she is the sole subject of the work and is framed by tapestries that highlight the arching curve of her back. She has what Baudelaire termed a "deep voluptuousness," yet her timeless immobility makes her somehow chaste. The scene is seemingly calm and simple. However, Ingres draws on numerous references, such as the Tuscan mannerists, including Bronzino; an engraving after Jacob van Loo's Coucher à l'italienne (1650, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts); and, above all, Raphael, the artist Ingres professed boundless admiration for all his life, particularly one of the the artist's Graces in the Loggia of Psyche at the Villa Farnesina.

"I take as my example the great Poussin, who often repeated the same subjects." Ingres kept up his quest for the ideal to the end of his days, turning to the same themes time and again in his drive to attain perfection. The central figure of the Turkish Bath (1848-64, Louvre), for example, takes up the bathers of this early work, as does the Golden Age (1862, Château de Dampierre). This quest for an ideal explains the lack of illusory depth, the diffuse light, and the refusal to depict the angles of the woman's frame. Ingres added a discreetly Oriental setting in the Grande Odalisque (1814, Louvre) for the Salon of 1819. The Valpinçon Bather, Ingres's first great nude, is the model for all his later nudes. She is already typical of Ingres's style, with its sumptuous textures (for example, the turban), sinuous harmony of line, and depiction of the serene attitude and chaste sensuality of the woman's body-all enlisted in the quest for absolute perfection.

Source: Musée du Louvre

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