Born into a country on the eve of revolution at the start of a century of revolutions, Ingres considered himself to be the protector of artistic orthodoxy in the face of the emergence of the Romantic school of art, yet was fated to be viewed as a renegade and a rebel. Inspired by Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David, whose own works used Neoclassical themes to endorse the revolutionary elite, Ingres became a committed Neoclassical painter. However, he would later become better known as a portraitist and achieve lasting recognition for his Orientalist works such as the "The Odalisque".
His own approach to art was itself frequently contradictory. He often spent years creating a painting, yet was at the same time a prolific producer of studies and sketches, including 450 sketches for his portraits. A doctrinal Neoclassical artist in theory, Ingres was nonetheless consistently rejected and criticised by the academic establishment. Perhaps most ironically of all, he would come to be viewed as one of the key influences on modern art. Degas, Matisse and Picasso all acknowledged their debt to him since Ingres was above all a draughtsman, who raised line above colour in all his works: "Drawing is seven eighths of what makes up painting". He instilled this view into his students: "a thing well-drawn is a thing well-painted".
The contradictions seem to have been present in the life of Ingres from a young age. His father, who earned his living as a miniaturist, sculptor and stonemason, encouraged his son's interest in art, and Ingres began to receive his education at the local school. The French Revolution brought his schooldays to an end, though not his artistic studies. Ingres was placed in the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture in Toulouse, where he studied both painting and sculpture. It was the work of the neoclassical painter Guillaume-Joseph Roques at Toulouse that would leave an indelible mark on the career of Ingres. From his teacher, the young Ingres learned of the significance of Raphael and made his commitment to both the historic theme and the harmonious placement of figures, based on an underlying skill of outstanding draughtsmanship and perfection of form.
At the same time, Ingres could have made a career as a musician. He was second violin in the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse in his early teens. In fact, he was so talented in the sphere of music that he has passed into legend in the phrase "violon d'Ingres", a reference to a second talent in an individual that is equal to the first. However, Ingres knew what he wanted to be: a painter of historic themes based on examples from antiquity, mythology and religion. it is hard not to view this as a young man's quest for the ideal, establishing itself as it did in his late teens. It was of the period, a time when heroic neoclassical themes informed the post-revolutionary aftermath in France. These themes would also predominate under Napoleon I, before being swept aside in a wash of colour and action by the artists of the Romantic school such as Delacroix. Against this new revolutionary vibrancy, the formally posed nudes and heroic figures of Neoclassical art could hardly resist, however pure, idealistic and antique the theme might be.
In 1797, though, that lay in the future, and after winning the prize for drawing at the Académie Royale, Ingres was accepted as a student in the studio of Jacques-Louis David. It was an ideal training for an artist with his ambitions and Ingres seems to have been notable for his application to his studies. Moving to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1799, Ingres was awarded the grand prize for figure painting in both 1800 and 1801. In 1801, Ingres also won the Academy's premier award, the Prix de Rome, for his painting depicting "The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the tent of Achilles". This work not only illustrates his talent in depicting the human form, and the male nude in particular; it also shows a sense of drama, his skill with classically-inspired landscapes and an ability to use colour and perspective to great effect.
Delayed from taking residence in Italy due to lack of funds, Ingres began to paint portraits. Here his skill in drawing and his tendency to idealise worked successfully in such examples as his portraits of Sabine Rivière, Madame Aymon ("La Belle Zélie"), and Caroline Rivière. Ingres had proved that he could work successfully commercially though he retained his ambition to be an artist of historic themes. In 1803, he had received what should have been the outstanding commission of his young life; to produce a portrait of Napoleon I, seated Jove-like on his throne, for his coronation. When this was exhibited, along with other examples of his work at the Salon, the critics of Ingres came out en masse. Ingres departed for Rome in the midst of a storm of criticism.
Describing them as "scoundrels" who wanted to "assassinate" his reputation, Ingres said he would never exhibit there again. The orthodox neoclassical painter had become a rebel: "art will need to be reformed, and I intend to be that revolutionary". Under the terms of his prize, he had to send art to the Académie Royale, and it was during this period that he began to shock and stir the Academicians with his paintings of female nudes such as "Baigneuse à mi-corps" (1807), and "La Grande Bagneuse" (1808).
Expecting neoclassical portraits of the male nude, the Academy was taken aback. When Ingres also sent them his "Oedipus and the Sphinx", with its dominant male nude, the Academicians commented that the figures lacked the idealism expected in such works. Ingres continued to paint nudes, some of which were not completed for decades. Further works sent back to the Académie received a hostile response. Nonetheless, Ingres continued to receive successful commissions in Italy while awaiting what he hoped would be a breakthrough among the critics in his own country.
In 1819, he certainly provoked a lively response from them in his choice of "La Grand Odalisque". This extraordinary nude portrait of a woman, with impossibly long back and awkward pose, raised another storm of criticism, one commentator slating it as a "degenerate execution" of art. However, Ingres continued to receive commissions in Italy. Despite the horror of the critics at his "Gothic, disturbing" painting "Roger Freeing Angelica", the work was bought by Louis XVIII, and placed in the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.
By 1824, the showing of his religious work "Vow of Louis XIII" provoked a change of heart in his critics in France. Suddenly he was in vogue, and a lithograph of "La Grande Odalisque" became all the rage. He was even accepted at the Salon in 1833, the place of his humiliation so many years before. Nonetheless, responses to his work still varied wildly, and Ingres took up a post as Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1834 after further criticism had greeted his Salon exhibition that year. For years, his rivalry with Delacroix dominated his reputation. However, the recognition Ingres has received from artists such as Picasso shows his unique place as the artist who drew inspiration from the past to provide inspiration for the future.