Drawing Basics: Ingres' Miraculous Lines

This French master teaches us much about contours, portraiture, and how to draw people.

by Mark G. Mitchell

Portrait of Charles- François Mallet by Ingres, graphite drawing
Portrait of Charles-
François Mallet

1809, graphite, 10 9/16 x 8 5/16.
Collection The Art Institute
of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

So that’s what Paganini looked like in his cravat and coat—curly haired, serene, and assured, more than a bit of a showoff, cradling his violin and bow with his right arm, the comfortably articulated fingers of his left hand supporting the neck of the bow.

It’s a small graphite drawing, less than 12 inches high. It seems to be as much about the wooden musical instrument as the virtuosic 19th-century musician who holds it. But it’s also about that ample coat—the thick texture and decisive folds of it and how the material hangs over the form of the man. It’s also about those expert thumbs and fingers protruding from the cuffs of the coat.

It’s about the face. The gaunt cheeks and confident eyes say everything about this string concert performer who was like the Jimi Hendrix of classical music in his day. And in the end, it’s about the charm and authority of the total drawing, which is itself like a well-composed piece of music—an apt simile, not just because of the subject. The artist who drew the picture, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, also played the violin all his life.

“I remember being fascinated with Ingres’ pictures back in college,” says Mary Sullivan, an artist and illustrator from Austin, Texas, who draws the “hidden-picture” puzzles and other illustrations for Highlights for Children magazine. “I don’t know why I liked him so much. It must have been that I had something deep down in me that he too had. I’m such a line person, like he was. There’s so much in his detail: the fabric, the folds in the drapes—you can even see what kind of material it is. I’ve heard that textile historians study his drawings and paintings to learn about fabrics of that time. I want my pictures to be like that. I want a kid to sit there for hours and look at them.”

Paganini by Ingres, graphite drawing
1819, graphite,
11¾ x 8?. Collection
the Louvre, Paris, France.

Ingres’ paintings are a universe of their own. But his draftsmanship is what people remember about him. “The figures in his pencil portraits created out of controlled maelstroms of ethereally soft shading, vigorous darting marks, and powerfully assured and sinuous repeating lines seem more forthrightly present than the sitters, not only in earlier drawings but also in the drawings of any era,” wrote Sanford Schwartz in The New York Review of Books. He was writing about a popular Ingres retrospective at the Louvre this past spring. “Ingres made sitters more physically tangible and psychologically present than they had perhaps ever been in the tradition of portraiture,” Schwartz wrote. “He created one rounded, fully autonomous character after another … resulting in an array of personalities who, in a flowing organic way, sum up an entire era.”

What an era it was, too. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born in the tiny French town of Montauban in Southern France a few years before the fall of the Bourbon monarchy to the guillotines. His father worked in the “applied arts”: He was a sculptor, painter, architect, stone mason, and home decorator who recognized his first born’s precocious talent early and began to instruct him in all matters design. It was said that Ingres could draw before he could walk. “I was raised in red chalk,” Ingres once stated. He learned by copying his father’s drawings and a collection of engravings of the work of other artists.

Sheet of Studies of Women for The Turkish Bath by Ingres, pen and ink drawing
Sheet of Studies of Women
for The Turkish Bath

ca. 1830, pen, brown ink, and
graphite on two joined sheets,
6¾ x 4¾. Collection
the Louvre, Paris, France.

While the French Revolution was raging, Ingres attended the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, in Toulouse. Here he was introduced to the work of Renaissance painter Raphael, which would inspire him for the rest of his life. Ingres was guided first “by the marvelous functional design of the ideal human body, and second, the linear and spatial pictorial design which Raphael perfected,” wrote art historian Arthur Millier.

In 1797, at the age of 17, Ingres arrived in Paris to study in the studio of Jacques-Louis David, the neoclassical painter-in-residence of the French Revolution and now Napoleon’s official “art czar.” The diligent teenager from a nowhere southern country town quickly stood out in David’s atelier of nearly 300 students. The École des Beaux-Arts (France’s premier arts college), in Paris, admitted him a year later, and in 1801 Ingres won France’s top art scholarship, the Prix de Rome. That singular achievement for someone so young raised everyone’s eyebrows, including probably those of his teacher, David.

It would be five years before Ingres could get to Rome to study with the national prize money. Napoleon’s wars had drained the treasury of cash. In the meantime he was commissioned to paint Portrait of Bonaparte, First Council. Napoleon was a fan; it would be the first of several Napoleon renderings Ingres would be asked to do.

Ingres finally made it to Rome and was able to stand in front of his beloved Raphaels in 1808. He lived in Italy, which was now run by the French, for the next 18 years. He studied, drew, and painted in Rome, Naples, and Florence. When the stipend dollars ran out, he supported himself and his wife with sporadic painting commissions from the state and hundreds of graphite portraits he made of the tourists, traveling dignitaries, and wealthy émigrés who sought him out for his uncanny facility for capturing a likeness. He reportedly sold these sketches for 40 francs each, with his barber frequently acting as his agent. The little graphite portraits are “great works of art, catching in a miracle of talent features, poses, costumes, atmosphere and character,” wrote art historian Stephen Longstreet. “The people are real. They breathe and exist solidly on earth ….”

Studies of Legs, Hands, and the Profile of a Head for The Martyrdom of St. Symphorien by Ingres, graphite drawing
Studies of Legs, Hands, and the Profile of a Head for The Martyrdom of St. Symphorien by Ingres, graphite drawing ca. 1827–1834, graphite, 18 x 12.
Private collection.

In 1824 Ingres returned to Paris to paint big pictures and teach in his own atelier. More than 100 pupils convened to learn his rigorous classical methods. Eventually new kinds of painting—including naturalism and romanticism—began to upstage the whopping allegorical ancient “history paintings” that were being labored over by Ingres and many others. Editorial cartoonists poked fun at Ingres for his stubbornly backward-looking art and views. The artist’s famously thin skin for criticism and rejection only made it more fun for the press. So Ingres left Paris in a huff in 1835. He returned to Italy to take over as director of the French Academy in Rome at the Villa Medici. He reinstilled classical and Renaissance traditions with their emphasis on drawing and revived the struggling school. His students and co-workers adored him.

In 1841 he returned to Paris, straight into the embrace of the new French court (the Bourbons were back), as well as the powerful new middle class. Here was his new market for portraits and other commissions. He drew and painted and taught and hosted dinners until 1867, when he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died at age 87, leaving a body of work that still dazzles.

“His drawings are distinguished by their careful containment of form, perfect lines, and subtle shadings,” says Phillip Wade, a painter and painting instructor at the Art School at the Austin Museum of Art, in Texas. “I’ve never seen anyone who could do outlines as well as he could.”

“Ingres was a miraculous technician,” adds Frank Wright, a painter and professor of art at The George Washington University and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, both in Washington, DC. “He was one of the most remarkably assured draftsmen who ever lived. When he put a line on, he did it with such certainty. How did he draw with such authority? It’s one of the things you can’t teach about Ingres, but you can be aware of.”

Study for the Portrait of Madame d’Haussonville by Ingres, graphite drawing
Study for the Portrait of Madame d’Haussonville
ca. 1842–1845, charcoal over graphite
on thin white wove paper, 14? x 8?.
Collection the Fogg Art Museum
at Harvard University, Cambridge,

Ingres made nearly two dozen
similar studies before
executing the oil portrait.

“I think the word talent comes into play here,” says Wade, who has examined Ingres’ work and studio materials in Ingres’ hometown of Montauban. “His contour lines are extraordinary.”

“Contour is the first apprehension of primitive man who engraves a wild beast on the stone wall of his cave,” wrote Georges Wildenstein in his book Ingres: The Paintings of J.A.D. Ingres (Phaidon, London, England). “Or of the child who draws before he comes to distinguish colors.

“Contour, which is also the last visual reference of the blind man, is the most universally comprehensible aspect of the object: the drawn outline is also the earliest method of reproduction,” Wildenstein says.

Contour was the grammar and code for Ingres’ art. “We talk in classes a lot about the ‘lost and found line,’ the ‘lost and found edge’ and the ‘open form’ versus the ‘closed form,’” says Wade. “Botticelli and Ingres are thought of as ‘closed-form’ artists, they enclosed everything in line; whereas Delacroix and Rembrandt are examples of ‘open form’—their drawings explode over the edge of the contours. You can’t even find the line in some of their drawings. With Ingres, though, it’s really all about the containment of form with lost and found line.”

“Ingres draws with a more subtle and various line than any of his contemporaries,” wrote the late Agnes Mongan, who directed the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1969 through 1971 and was a pioneer in the study of drawings. “Shading is sometimes done with fine hatching; sometimes by smoothing with a stump, and there is an occasional discreet touch of wash. But these types of modeling are kept to a minimum. Line is supreme,” she wrote. “With a graphite line that is constantly and finely adjusted—now narrow, now thick, pressing firmly or more swiftly—he defines contours with a remarkable range of modulations. Form is described above all by such calibrations of contour as well as by direction of a line.”

“He always drew with a sharp point, sometimes even in a ‘chisel-shaped point,’ which enabled him to vary the thickness of the line and to shift from sharp to broad, as in music,” wrote Avigdor Arikha in J.A.D. Ingres: Fifty Life Drawings From the Musée Ingres at Montauban, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Portrait of Madame d’Haussonville by Ingres, drawing
Portrait of Madame d’Haussonville
ca. 1842–1845, graphite, 9 3/16 x 7¾.
Collection the Fogg Art Museum
at Harvard University, Cambridge,

At this point, Ingres had
settled on the composition
and squared the sketch
for transfer.

Ingres himself employed musical metaphors in describing his process to his students. “If I could make musicians of you all, you would thereby profit as painters. Everything in nature is harmony; a little too much, or else too little, disturbs the scale and makes a false note. One must teach the point of singing true with the pencil or with brush quite as much as with the voice; rightness of forms is like rightness of sounds.”

“He was excellent at gesture, but contour held that musicality for him,” says Wright, who as a graduate student working under museum director Agnes Mongan researched and analyzed Ingres drawings in the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection at the Fogg Art Museum. “Of course, Ingres stacked the deck in his favor by deliberately using a frontal light. “If you have light coming from the side, it emphasizes the sculptural effect. But front lighting emphasizes the edges, the arabesque line that Raphael, who was Ingres’ god, involved himself so much with. Raphael did a lot with the curves of the form, the edges of the form. Raphael, Ingres, and others knew when to interrupt the line, to allow the light to come in, so the line is not continuous. They let it be broken to show the saturation of the form in light, or be bolder on the other side to show the form is turned away from the light.

“Of course he was always emphasizing or deemphasizing the appearance of line,” Wright continues. “He sometimes used a minimal line and drew little niches to give the illusion that the form was rich. He did brilliant lines. He often challenged his own brilliance to keep his drawing alive.”

“I like his way of finding the places that are dark and the places that are light—it’s so spiritual,” Sullivan says. “When you see that line disappearing, it may be that the area doesn’t have a need for further exploration, and color might take over instead. People say Ingres was always following the rules and being so formal. But I find him very intuitive and emotional.”

“To really succeed in a portrait, first of all one has to be imbued with the face one wants to paint, to reflect on it for a long time, attentively, from all sides, and even to devote the first sitting to this,” Ingres once said. Indeed, he had a way of capturing the core personality of a sitter. Ingres believed that his accuracy came from careful observation. Wright believes Ingres had a wonderful feeling, a sensitivity toward people. Mongan notes, “He even captures their self-consciousness in posing.”

Ingres was a compulsive drawer, urging students to draw with their eyes when they could not do so with a pencil. For his painted portraits and murals, Ingres sometimes made hundreds of preparatory drawings. He seemed to find this step of the process more satisfying than actually painting the murals, which he sometimes abandoned. “The stages were: studying from life, wrenching truth from experience, squaring, enlarging, transporting onto canvas, going back, if necessary to the model for this or that detail,” wrote Arikha on Ingres’ method. “Asking the Count de Pastoret for his gloves or going back to Madame Moitessier’s left arm, drawing it life-size so as to transpose it directly onto canvas, going back to it again and again. This is when Ingres got bogged down. It was an over-elaborate—almost obsessive—proceeding, the aim of which was to get nearer to the truth of the matter.”

He posed models (as opposed to his portrait subjects) in the nude, to better understand the underlying structure and thus get the folds exactly right in the garments or drapery falling over the body. He spent nine days painting one hand for his famously stunning portrait of Louise d’ Haussonville. “We are sometimes not aware that the people who are great are the people who are willing to spend more painstaking time on a piece,” says Wright. “Whereas someone less great would knock it out and be satisfied and stop, a person like Dürer or Raphael or Ingres would actually bring more humility to the task.”

Study for the Figure of France in The Apotheosis of Napoleon by Ingres, drawing Nude Study for the Figure of France in The Apotheosis of Napoleon by Ingres, drawing
Study for the Figure of France in The Apotheosis of Napoleon
1853, graphite and black chalk over stylus outline on tan wove paper, affixed to heavy cream paper and squared for transfer, 20? x 10¾. Collection the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Nude Study for the Figure of France in The Apotheosis of Napoleon
1853, graphite,
17¾ x 6?.
Private collection.

“Despite the fact that so many people could draw well then, his works were livelier and much more delightful to look at—spontaneous and fresh,” Wade says. “For Ingres, drawing was contour, with very simplified color and very simplified form.”

A concept not lost on Degas, Matisse, and Picasso—and so Ingres’ drawings influenced 20th-century modern art, just as they continue to fascinate us today.    

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9 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: Ingres' Miraculous Lines

  1. Ingres had a lot of help in his drawings and paintings. By this I mean he applied the camera obscura and other pre photographic items to achieve his lines including photographs. He had his favorite students to do studies for his compositions one such was the young Chasseriau whom went over to the Romantic side with Delecroix. Ingres also use the antique to support multitudes of his figures studies. Yes he was a great draughtsman and we can learn from him but as with all things during his era he had help in his production.

  2. When I see Inges’ drawings in museums, I am always pulled in by the beauty of the handmade paper and the interaction of the graphite with the paper surface texture and color. Paper is so important in a drawing which pulls the viewer so close to it.

  3. Ingres is one of my favorite artist, because, like he, I love the lines, the forms. I have learned a lot from him for my own artwork. Eventhough his paintings are very interesting, I think his drawings are stunning.
    I think there are artist who works with colours (romantics, imppresionists) or shadows, seeking the atmosphere or the scuptorical volume (“open form” like says Wade). But Ingres was specially a draftman, even when he painted. Then, Ingress worked in 2-D, and in this sense is a modern artist, because he didn`t try make “trompe l’oeil”.
    You can visit me at http://www.ugo.es.mn.

  4. How can you talk about Ingres’ “miraculous line” amd not show as an example his drawing (not the painting) of The Source. Do you know a place on the Web where this drawing can be viewed?

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article, as Ingres is one of my favorite artists. I display his drawing book at our BACAA classes. We are currently studying with Ted Seth Jacobs who talks about contour lines and lost and found edges just like Ingres did.
    Linda Dulaney-Founder
    Bay Area Classical Artist Atelier

  6. This is regards to T Denby’s comment,

    Ingres might, (and thats a maybe) have used camera obscura for assistance on some of his paintings, but not his drawings.

    He did a lot of his drawings on the spot for patrons so that he could make money during tight times when painting commissions werent coming in.

    In terms of your misunderstanding about photography, let me set it straight for you. Ingres died in 1867, not until about the 1850’s did photography advance to quicker developing rates using chemicals, until then a photo (which was “black and white” and nearly a negative,) took close to 6 hours to take.

    He wasnt using photography to help him. He was trained by David, who was also doing monumental works of art before photography was ever even a consideration.

    This belief of the photo/camera obscura dependency has been perpetuated by sub-par modernists like David Hockney who cant even use camera obscura to prove their own point as illustrated in his own book.

    I hope that clears it up, I hate seeing people continue to try and diminish artists by claiming they used aides, while artists before them did master work with nothing but assistants and models. Whats better is that artists today have repeatedly proven these claims wrong by showing exact drawings can be done from life, without any secondary help.