One of the great neoclassical French history and portrait painters, Ingres was initially taught drawing by his father, a decorative painter, before studying at the Toulouse Academy. In 1797 he moved to Paris and entered the studio of Jacques-Louis David. He entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1799 and won the Rome Prize (prix de Rome) in 1801, but did not arrive in Rome until 1806, where he worked until 1820.
In 1802 Ingres exhibited for the first time at the salon and the following year was commissioned, along with Greuze, Lefèvre, Meynier and Benoist to paint portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ingres exhibited his Napoleon I on his imperial throne (Musée de l’Armée, Paris) at the salon of 1806 to a critical public reception, which frustrated the artist. In a letter from Rome to the father of his fiancé Marie-Anne_Julie Forestier (to whom he had become betrothed that year), Ingres recorded that his critics had ‘waited until I was away to assassinate my reputation’.
Undoubtedly David’s most brilliant pupil, Ingres was the artist who not only championed but also revitalised the classical tradition in the 19th century. He was nevertheless slow to achieve recognition. While in Italy he was reluctantly obliged to produce portrait drawings – which, like his teacher David, he looked down upon as a lower form of art – in pencil. These provided him with a ready source of income to support himself and his wife and while in Italy he made hundreds of drawings.
Following the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Ingres found an enthusiastic clientele among postwar English tourists in Rome who had flocked back to the city liberated from French rule. The first Englishman to have his portrait drawn by Ingres was The Hon. Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford and former governor-general of Ceylon (1798-1805), who he drew in 1815. Ingres also made a lithograph of North with his sister, her husband and their son in Four portraits on one stone 1820-1. It is said that North wanted to take the artist back with him to England to set up as a portrait draughtsman, but the offer was declined.
Official recognition came with the commission for a great altarpiece for the cathedral of his native Montauban. The success of this work, The vow of Louis XIII, exhibited in Paris in 1824, secured him the legion d’honneur and election to the Fine Arts Academy. But an obsessive perfectionism and sensitivity to adverse criticism did not make life easy.
The artist escaped Paris for six years in 1835-41 to serve as director of the French Academy in Rome. He was acclaimed on his return to Paris, but was reluctant to take on further large-scale commissions for history paintings. He is seen as his best – arguably – in some of the greatest portraits ever painted.