Deconstructed: Ingres’ Virgil Reading from the Aeneid
Over the course of 53 years Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres revisited this scene from antiquity in over 100 drawings and watercolours and three oil paintings. Christie’s specialist Laura H. Mathis unpicks the evolution of his final version, offered in New York on 18 April
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), along with his mentor Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), spearheaded a Neo-Classical style in European art that championed the artistic language of antiquity. Having studied the work of the Roman poet Virgil, as well as biographies of his life, Ingres embarked on depicting the moment when he recited his Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, his wife Livia and his sister Octavia. At the mention of the ghost of her dead son, Marcellus, Octavia faints.
It was a scene that the artist returned to in every decade of his working life, revising it in more than 100 drawings and watercolours and three oil paintings. When Ingres completed this final version in 1864 — painted by the artist over an 1832 engraving of the composition made by Charles-Simon Pradier, after a drawing by Ingres — he was rapidly revisiting his life’s work.
‘He was a notorious perfectionist,’ says specialist Laura H. Mathis. ‘In an attempt to secure his legacy at the end of his life, he produced smaller-scale paintings and drawings of works he considered masterpieces — each including any final amendments. This was Ingres attempting to create perfect conceptions of these major works.’
Made without studio assistants and invested with a lifetime’s effort, these images can be considered among Ingres’s purest works. Here, Mathis deconstructs Ingres’ ultimate Virgil Reading the Aeneid — offered in 19th Century European Art in New York on 18 April — explaining how he worked and reworked the idea for this painting over the span of 53 years.
In his epic poem The Aeneid, Virgil recounted the Trojan warrior Aeneas’s journey to Italy, where his descendants Romulus and Remus would found the city of Rome.
Always on the left of the composition, Virgil wears a laureate’s wreath and white toga. Grasping his unfurled manuscript of the Aeneid, he pauses mid-sentence after reading a line from Book VI that recalls an encounter between the story’s hero and the ghost of Octavia’s assassinated son Marcellus, which causes Octavia, in yellow in the centre of the painting, to faint.
When Ingres repainted the scene in 1850, he traced over an 1830 drawing which had been passed to Simon Charles Pradier to engrave in 1832. This suggests that between 1830 and 1850, Ingres thought he had finalised many of the main elements. However when he revisited the scene in 1864 to make this version — which is painted over a copy of Pradier's engraving — he made further changes.
‘Ingres extended the image on all four sides to widen the action, and plunged the characters into darkness using chiaroscuro to heighten the mood,’ explains Mathis. ‘He also left areas of paint particularly thin, so that the lines of the engraving would add texture to the walls and floor.’
Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42-23 BC) was the son of Octavia, the emperor’s elder sister. Tipped as heir to Augustus’s throne after marrying his daughter — his own cousin — in 25 BC, he succumbed to the plague just two years later.
In Book VI of the Aeneid Marcellus’s ghost acts as a guide for the story's hero Aeneas through Hades. Upon their meeting, Aeneas announces ‘Tu Marcellus eris’ (you will be Marcellus) — the line narrated in this scene which causes his grieving mother to faint.
Ingres’ earliest known depiction of the scene from 1811 doesn’t include Marcellus; however, layers of over-paint obscure the work’s original composition. ‘This first version was commissioned by General Miollis, a French governor in Rome who shared Ingres’ affinity with Virgil,’ says Mathis. Ingres bought it back in the 1830s and directed his pupil Raymond Blaze to scrape down the surface and drastically alter it to adhere more closely to Pradier's print. It remained unfinished at the time of Ingres’ death and was only completed years later by another pupil, Jean Pichon, who took cues from other, now lost versions.
By the time of an 1819 sketch, Marcellus appears in the scene as a statue, initially in the form of an idealised Greek warrior whose shadow hovers over the scene like his ghost. It’s only in this final work that Marcellus wears a Roman military cuirass — closely resembling that of the 1st-century AD statue Augustus of Prima Porta — the recent discovery of which had been widely publicised. Mathis explains that the new armour may have been an attempt to cloak his nudity at the request of Ingres’ conservative second wife, who kept this painting in her collection.
Slumped in the arms of her brother, Emperor Augustus, is Octavia the Younger (69-11 BC). After the death of Marcellus, Octavia was inconsolable and retired from public life.
The Roman rhetorician Aelius Donatus (320-380 AD) provided an account of the moment Virgil read his Aenied to the family some four or five years after Marcellus’s death, on which Ingres based his scene.
‘Two sketches from 1812 suggest Ingres played with depicting Octavia both before and after fainting,’ says Mathis. ‘The latter, he soon realised, allowed him to heighten the reaction of the scene’s other characters.’
Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) was elected consul and ultimately became Emperor of Rome following the assassination of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Depicted here wearing a red cloak clasped across his chest with a gold brooch, he supports the shoulder of his collapsed sister Octavia.
Augustus’s other hand signals to Virgil to stop reading. This outstretched arm was a later alteration made by Ingres, intended to enhance the emperor’s authority and provide a focal point for the tension. ‘A sketch from 1812 show’s the artist’s experimentation with the position of his limb,’ Mathis confirms.
Livia Drusilla (58 BC-29 AD) was Augustus’s second wife. Their marriage lasted 51 years but produced no children. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235 AD) the people of Rome were quick to accuse Livia of having a hand in the death of Marcellus, her husband’s nephew and presumed heir, in order to promote her own two sons from her previous marriage to the throne.
Here she is seen proudly wearing imperial purple robes and a red stola, as well as revealing a gold signet ring and veiled diadem. A fragment of a sketch from 1830 shows Ingres’ fanatical attention to detail as he experiments with the shape of her footstool.
In contrast to the other characters, Livia reacts without concern, staring away from her husband and sister-in-law. Instead she gazes impassively — perhaps knowingly — into the distance. ‘In an eariler painting fragment Ingres attempted to huddle her together with Augustus and Octavia. However, he eventually placed her back beneath the statue of Marcellus where the connection with his death is clear,’ Mathis explains. ‘There she physically separates him from his mother, and her face is returned to the shadows.’
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64/62-12 BC) was a close friend and lieutenant to Augustus. In 21 BC he married the emperor’s daughter Julia the Elder (39 BC-14 AD) — Marcellus’s widow of two years. ‘Agrippa stoically looks on to the unfolding drama, wrapped in a green cloak and with one hand raised to his chin — a look that intensifies between earlier examples and this last version of the work,’ Mathis says.
Gauis Cilnius Maecenas (68-8 BC) was Augustus’s political advisor and a patron of the arts — he offered young poets, including Virgil, financial support. It was probably Maecenas who would have arranged the reading that takes place in this painting. Ingres first imagined him looking in on the scene in horror, before turning his gaze away, and finally to looking backwards as he whispers in Agrippa’s ear. ‘This move shifts him from being initially shocked, to perhaps discussing Livia's involvement in the death of Marcellus,’ suggests the specialist.
Dressed in a green tunic, the servant girl who appears at the far left edge of the image is in no other paintings. She acts as a counterweight to the figures of Agrippa and Maecenas and heightens a sense of voyeurism. ‘Her hesitant stance, with arms raised in panic, mimics the audience’s reaction at having just stepped into the dramatic scene,’ Mathis explains.