In this column, “The Masters’ Thread” (ept.ms/mastersthread), artists share their thoughts about how one master’s piece inspires their current work.
I can still recall the first time I saw the masterworks of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). I was fresh out of art school, 23 years old, and had recently decided I needed more technical guidance, so I fell into the world of classical art training. Paul Ingbretson, my first ever classically minded teacher, had a library of art books that opened my eyes to artists that I hadn’t appreciated or even known existed.
On his library wall, there was a poster of Ingres’s “Princesse de Broglie,” and in his collection, a monograph full of Ingres’s paintings and drawings. I was perplexed by the work. I had a stubborn resistance to liking it, but I could not stop opening the book or stop staring at the poster—his lines, his forms, his completely flawless modeling of the forms. At the time, I found it stuffy and academic, but unquestionably the most consistently beautiful art I had ever seen.
That was nine years ago. Since then, I have been humbled many times over, realizing that my voice in art has been formed by first listening to the wisdom of those masters who paved the way.
“But how do I know how much to absorb of them before losing myself?” This common question among artists was ringing in my ears as I struggled through cast drawing and learning the seemingly impossible systems of basic drawing, anatomy, and color theory while training at Grand Central Atelier in New York. My opinion is this: There is no limit to what the great masters can teach us if we are willing to be free in our curiosity. I am now constantly asking myself to take, steal, and enjoy what I like in great works. What do these masters have that I desperately want? How freeing it is to realize that their progress and mastery is ours to utilize.
As a neoclassical painter, Ingres understood this concept all too well. “The Valpinçon Bather” was one of three paintings he was required to submit for adjudication in Paris while he was studying at the French Academy in Rome in 1808, during his Prix de Rome (the scholarship for French art students established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV). I can imagine Ingres arriving in Italy and gravitating toward the female nudes of the Northern and the Italian Renaissance. For Ingres, this time of intense, privileged study awarded to him by the academy made clear the artistic language he desired for decades to come, particularly in regard to the female nude.
It is fascinating to find that the woman he painted in “The Valpinçon Bather” was taken from antiquity, and that he also used it in several of his other greatest works, culminating in his masterwork “The Turkish Bath.” His calm and measured woman seated in these famous works has an undeniable resemblance to Antonio Canova’s “Venus Italica.” It is expected that he found inspiration in Canova’s Venus and either directly or indirectly its predecessor, the Medici Venus.
My own work, “Consider the Lilies,” is inspired heavily by Ingres’s “The Valpinçon Bather.” From the time I was flipping though books in Ingbretson’s studio, this work has captivated my artistic spirit. Without knowing who Ingres intended this woman to be, she has always embodied young womanhood, a moment of vulnerability, and chastity. Her generalized form and elongated neck are fully realized and unambiguous. Ingres does not look for forms in a free-spirited, jazz-like exploration. He has already done the investigation through endless drawings and oil studies. He has achieved a form that is described so clearly and beautifully that it invites the viewer to enjoy peacefully the prudence of a young lady.
In my own painting, I have generalized form to suggest a gesture that echoes Ingres. I wanted to embody this spirit with a young bride, similar to his young bather, in a moment of introspection and a season of growth. She, like Ingres’s seated nude, is an embodiment of a moment that many women can relate to. My seated nude sits on her intricate scarf, holding loosely a white dress, beside a living, growing plant. The environment is also reminiscent of Ingres’s sensitivity to detail. He chooses to include details such as the tiny fountain, the decorative headscarf, and numerous fabrics. The details from each painting differentiate the bride from the bather; however, I have felt that these two women are experiencing a similar coming of age. It is far from me to suggest that my seated nude is a masterwork as I see Ingres’s work, but the spirit is perhaps in line with his.
In the end, my reverence for Ingres will continue as I explore and learn more from his genius. I have little doubt that I will again return to this woman as Ingres returned to his young muse. The woman in “Consider the Lilies,” indeed, has other paintings to inhabit in my lifetime, and perhaps in paintings done by artists to come.
Elizabeth Beard is an artist, originally from Youngstown, Ohio. She currently resides in New York, where she paints in her studio in Long Island City and teaches at Grand Central Atelier. Her website is LizBeard.com