I stipulate at the outset that Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1876) is among my top five artists of all times. I know few if any who surpassed him in sheer technical mastery of his craft. Among the many very great painters who competed in the Paris salon during the nineteenth century, Ingres is by far my favorite. In my view his draftsmanship and painterly erudition as practicing artist was and perhaps is unsurpassed.
Like almost all of his contemporaries in this strongly classicizing period in the history of art he drew heavily on Greek and Roman antiquity for subject matter and theme. Not least among these was Homer.
But how well did he really know Homer?
I would assume that his famous painting, The Apotheosis of Homer (1827), speaks volumes for the high regard in which he held the poet as literary artist.
As the painting itself suggests, moreover, Ingres no doubt wanted us to share his vision of Homer as the fons et origio not only of poetry (witness the lyre being handed to him, as well as the two muses at his feet) but also of all learning (witness the learned French philosophes crowding happily around him).
Why, then, the Jupiter and Thetis of 1811, sixteen years earlier? Here the painter offers a bold and sensuous version of that famous passage in Iliad 1 where Thetis steals off to Mt. Olympus to cajole Zeus into helping her son, Achilles.
But here, let Homer describe the scene for us in his own words (Iliad 1.500-502):
καί ῥα πάροιθ’ αὐτοῖο καθέζετο, καὶ λάβε γούνων
σκαιῇ, δεξιτερῇ δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπ’ ἀνθερεῶνος ἑλοῦσα
λισσομένη προσέειπε Δία Κρονίωνα ἄνακτα·
And in front of him she proceeded to sit down, and she took him by the knees
with her left hand; with her right she chucked him under the chin
and, beseeching, addressed lord Zeus the son of Kronos:
The powerful juxtaposition of σκαιῇ (with the left [hand]) and δεξιτερῇ (with the right [hand]) in line 501 as well as the unusual but notable diaeresis after σκαιῇ certainly call unforgettable attention (Hera certainly picked up on it in a hurry, didn’t she? [536-543]) to the wheedling ways of Thetis and her seductive hands: “ … she took him by the knees / with her left hand (σκαιῇ); with her right (δεξιτερῇ) she chucked him under the chin … .”
Now look what Ingres did with this:
It puzzles me to this day why such a master deliberately reversed the hands: for Ingres has her cuddling the chin of Zeus with her left hand and grabbing his knees with her right. Given his placement of Thetis to the left of Zeus, he would certainly have had a more awkward time of it painting the hands the way Homer had it – but why couldn’t Ingres just as well have posed his Thetis-model to the right of Zeus, which would have made the Homeric hand gestures perfectly normal?
It’s just one of those odd little things for which I’d be quite happy to have a good explanation from some reader. Is the glorifying and celebratory Apotheosis of 1827 a kind of apology for that earlier misreading (?) of Homer in 1811? Did Ingres read a faulty translation? Was his own Greek (if he had any) inadequate to the occasion? Was he declaring some sort of artistic independence of his obvious source?
I just don’t get the point of ‘reworking’ (as artists of course often do, for a variety of purposes) the original in this instance.
But — it’s still magnificent art!