Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the classical French master of the 19th century, professed to abhor the painting of portraits. "I cannot stand them anymore," he wrote a friend in 1841. "It is not to paint portraits that I returned to Paris." "Cursed portraits!" he wrote another friend six years later. "They always prevent me from undertaking important things. . . ."
The ambitious undertaking stemmed from a modest proposal. Ingres painted two portraits, one seated, one standing, of Madame Ines Moitessier, a buxom woman whom Ingres called "the beautiful and the good." The standing, somewhat austere Madame Moitessier now belongs to Washington's National Gallery; the seated, more appealing Madame Moitessier to London's National Gallery.
Scholars still prize the large paintings, and the public is still titillated by his erotic scenes of nudes in Turkish harems. But the subjects of most Ingres murals are too obscure for most modern viewers. The reputation of Ingres now rests mainly on his cursed portraits.