Ingres’s portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville at the Frick Collection is one of the most celebrated paintings in America

The Comtesse d’Haussonville — the subject of this portrait at the Frick Collection — was unusually beautiful. She was also morbidly conscious of her effect on others, perhaps because she never got over the death of her sister at 14. “I was destined,” she later wrote, “to beguile, to attract, to seduce, and in the final reckoning to cause suffering in all those who sought their happiness in me.”

Louise de Broglie, as she was still then known, was in her 20s when she met the great neo-Classicist painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in Rome. She fell in love — not with Ingres, who was in his 60s, but with a painting in his studio — and asked him to paint her portrait. Though Ingres had hoped that his days of portrait commissions were over, he reluctantly agreed.

De Broglie was a cultivated woman of high social standing. She had grown up playing piano, painting watercolors and attending the opera. Later, in her 40s and 50s, she wrote a sequence of published biographies — including two volumes on Lord Byron, who had been close to her grandmother.

That grandmother had been none other than Madame de Staël, the writer, political theorist and famed conversationalist who epitomized France’s brilliant society during the decades before and after the French Revolution.

De Broglie lived in Madame de Staël’s shadow. Her fear of never quite measuring up made her vulnerable to criticism. In her unpublished autobiography, she recalled that, at 9, she was told that her character “had not enough nourishment in it to sustain a dog.” Her own mother compared her to “a pretty vase without handles.”

These criticisms obviously landed. “If you have always been criticized, from before you can remember” writes Rachel Cusk in her new novel, “Second Place,” “it becomes more or less impossible to locate yourself in the time or space before the criticism was made.” Cusk’s narrator looks to painting to provide relief from this self-alienated state: A great painting, she suggests, may establish a space for our true selves “when the rest of the time the space has been taken up because the criticisms got there first.”

Was Ingres, as he painted de Broglie, making a space for her true self? Or was he up to something else?

The portrait sittings began in 1842. The painting took three years to complete, during which time the future Comtesse had her first baby. Ingres made around 80 preparatory drawings.

The finished work is stupendous.

It is also, you could say, an enormous lie: a representation of a bright young woman that distorts her anatomy, captures none of her vulnerability, elides the matter of her pregnancy and new motherhood, compresses three years into a fleeting moment and at the same time converts a lively young woman into an unchanging figure of almost oracular remoteness.

My god, though, what a lie! The portrait’s richness is almost orchestral. Its stunning effect arises out of a tension between rampant material things (the picture groans with sensuous detail) and a deep substructure of abstract design. The one aspect ties us to a specific moment (Louise, home from the opera, has tossed her scarf on the chair and casually turns her head to meet our eyes). The other produces an atmosphere of sacred, immemorial calm. The effect is the aesthetic equivalent of plunging molten steel into iced water.

Ingres seems to have poured his whole soul into de Broglie’s satin dress, the color of which matches her eyes. Other vivid details include her blond eyelashes, her black opera binoculars, a bell pull that deviates tantalizingly from the vertical mirror frame and, reflected in the mirror, a tortoiseshell hair comb.

Against this, the pure symmetry of her face betokens celestial harmonies, while her figure is improbably — dreamily — sinuous. Ingres’s anatomical sleights of hand are often remarked on: He places de Broglie’s right arm, for instance, at such an angle that it couldn’t possibly connect with her unseen shoulder. Likewise, the finger reflected in the mirror shouldn’t be visible.

When an artist imposes such extremes of formal rigor on a realistic representation of another human being, you may start to wonder about the relationship between our yearnings (for order, beauty, confidence, permanence) and reality (which is inchoate, ugly, insecure and transient). Is it because we nurture the idea of a “true self” that can transcend reality’s mess that we venerate art, in the belief that only art can create the space in which this self might exist?

I wonder, more specifically, what it meant for Louise de Broglie, as she grew older, to have given birth — via Ingres and her own strong will — to such a rich and immaculate version of herself, destined to outlast her by hundreds of years. Did the portrait beguile and seduce her only to cause her to suffer, as she once believed she, on account of her youthful beauty, had been destined to do to others?

We know only that as she aged, Louise became preoccupied with death and physical decomposition (her will, according to the Frick curator Aimee Ng, requested that she be embalmed) and that she bequeathed the portrait — her earlier self embalmed as art — to her daughter.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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