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January 28, 2008

Un-Masterly Anatomy

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I freely admit that my art training was sketchy -- in the superficial sense (see here, for example). It can be tempting to blame that, rather than lack of competence, for the large doses of mediocrity my paintings possess. But the sad truth is, I don't quite have the art species of Right Stuff.

From what I've read, art school training generally hasn't improved much since my student days. Perhaps that's one reason so much Po-Mo painting depicting people is so poorly done. Maybe all those claims of trying to be "edgy" are excuses for inability to draw anatomically correct human beings.

But what about the Masters? Masters received extensive apprenticeships or, later, academic training that included lots and lots of drawing. They surely would get anatomy right.

Well ... not always.

One Master who was notoriously casual with the human form was Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) had his bad moments as well. I suppose this ought to give me a little hope.

Let's look:


Ingres - Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière - 1805
The young subject died two years after the painting was completed, so might have been sickly. In any case, the area of the shoulders and upper torso seems too small. The left arm appears to be too large -- arm distortion being a recurring feature in Ingres' portraits.

Ingres - Madame Marie-Geneviève-Marguerite de Senonnes - 1814
Here it is the right arm that looks a bit odd.

Ingres - La Grande Odalisque - 1814
Her back seems too long.

Ingres - Comtesse Louise-Albertine d'Haussonville - 1845
Her upper right arm seems too long and rubbery.

Renoir - The Umbrellas - 1881-85
Renoir also could have arm trouble. The woman with the basket has a left arm that is too long above the elbow and too short below.

Renoir - Dance in the City - 1883
The woman was posed by artist Suzanne Valadon. Her ear seems placed too high on her head.

Renoir - Suzanne Valadon - 1885
This time, he got it right -- assuming her right ear (shown here) is actually placed opposite her left one.

Toulouse-Lautrec - The Hangover - (Suzanne Valadon) - 1888
Another take on Valadon. I can find no photo of her that shows her ears.



posted by Donald at January 28, 2008


Some of the "distortions" of which you speak are the result of trying to create an elegant line, rather than carelessness or the inability to draw accurately. Society portraits are always a little misleading in this respect, because elegance counted for more than perfect accuracy. Ingres was a master draftsman, as his sketches show, and I don't think he ever had much difficulty capturing what his eyes saw.

Nor did Leonardo, yet if you look at his cartoon of the Virgin and St Anne, it's obvious that St Anne would have had to be a very large woman, and the Virgin a very small one. The various drawings and erasures make it clear that he sacrificed accuracy for visual interest. Or to go on to sculpture: Michelangelo's Pieta shows in this case a very large Virgin and a rather small Jesus, also probably as the result of trying to obtain a more visually interesting, less awkward silhouette than if the two figures had been of equal size.

In my drawing classes I would say that about a quarter of the people were natural draftsmen; around half (including me) were all right, and trainable; and the last quarter were clearly never going to get very far with it. The reason why so few of the naturals, or those of us capable of learning to do better, went on to become professionals is that there was clearly no market for it. People who want accurate records use cameras; people who want portraits often want soft pastels that make them look like fashion models, not accuracy.

Posted by: alias clio on January 28, 2008 3:08 PM

Don't ever think that a guy like Ingres couldn't draw correctly! If there was one thing Ingres could do, it was draw, and draw accurately.

Lots of the great masters changed proportions of the human body to suit their purposes. Leonardo and other greats did many studies of ideal human proportions (think of the famous man in a circle/square). They know the body.

I think you'll find that the classical realists of today can't draw like Leonardo or any of the other great masters because they can only copy. They have no mastery of the anatomy, other than being able to name it. They can't draw out of their imaginations, so they can't change anything they see and make it convincing. So all you get today is rendering, and paintings that look like copied photographs. Be very careful about thinking they have the skills or are "rediscovering" the skills of the old guys.

As far as being a good draftsman--that's only one small aspect of being a painter or making a picture. I think you can teach any reasonably intelligent person to draw well, or even paint competently. But what you can't teach is creativity, or the ability to make a good and compelling picture. That's where the talent really is. The sad thing about realism today is that people who can simply render in black and white or with paint are considered "great artists". Not so. The old guys were much better. In time, I think this will correct itself.

BTW, Renoir wasn't the best draftsman. But he sure could design a good picture!

Posted by: BTM on January 28, 2008 3:29 PM

In the 1845 Ingres:

Her upper right arm seems too long and rubbery.

And it seems to be coming out of her liver. I'm not sure if that qualifies as an 'elegant line', but man, is it startling!

Posted by: PatrickH on January 28, 2008 3:58 PM

Male artists have a problem with women's arms. Women's arms are shorter in the forearm and longer in the bicep. This has been happening since the beginning of time, continuing to the present. If you've ever had to look at the Portlandia sculpture on top of the Portland building you can really see what I mean - A perfect woman with a guy's set of arms. It happens all the time, but it really isn't something I ever noticed until at a gym some years ago trying a machine my husband had just used and one of the trainers explained it. Apparently you don't have to have an "artist's eye" to notice this - just a physical trainer's.

Posted by: bridget on January 28, 2008 4:11 PM

Someone noticed a long time ago that according to Ingres, Napoleon was fighting an army of (Russian) giants in Prussia in 1807. Just google up Ingres Eylau and see if you agree.


Posted by: Narr on January 28, 2008 4:50 PM

The addition of vertebrae (2) in Ingres' Odalisque's back has been remarked upon by several art historians and was certainly a deliberate elongation on Ingres' part in the interest of, as alias clio puts it, creating an elegant line.

The anatomically incorrect left arm on the woman carrying a basket in the umbrella Renoir may be his attempt to convey the effect of the downward pull of the weight of the basket on that arm. JMO.

I wouldn't have noticed the slight misplacement of the woman's ear in the dancing couple Renoir if you hadn't mentioned it. But look at Renoir's handling of her foreshortened right arm and her right hand loosely clasped in her partner's left hand. Painted in a loose understated manner so as not to draw attention away from the rest of the picture and painted convincingly. That's why he's Renoir.

Posted by: ricpic on January 28, 2008 5:58 PM

The thick, above-elbow glove worn by Ms. Riviere in the 1805 Ingres might be why her left arm appears too large, or part of the reason at least.

Posted by: Peter on January 28, 2008 9:37 PM

Perhaps the effect of the arm growing out of the liver that patrickh mentions is a visual effect that is the result of something unfamiliar to most of us - tight corseting. This is a plump woman with a waist much cinched in by her corsets, and, also as the result of corseting, her full bosom pushed up and over the corsets. So when she drew her arm across her waist, part of it was concealed by her sleeve, part of it by her bustline. And the lower part of her arm is fore-shortened too, making the upper part seem long - whereas in fact, it hits at about waist level (her dress is high-waisted, too, so it's also deceptive), which is about right.

Mlle Riviere's bust has also been pushed up by corsets, worn very high on the torso to accommodate the high-waisted empire dress. That may account for why her upper torso seems small. She was young enough, too, (I think about twelve or thirteen), that her head might still have been large in proportion to her body, as is common with children.

Posted by: alias clio on January 28, 2008 9:46 PM

Given Ingres' training in the studio of David, who was known for very strict proportion in figure drawing (to the point where he was the chief inspiration for what people today think of when they use the term 'academic figure study', at least in the 19th century meaning of that term), I think it is very unlikely that Ingres was unable to handle proportion. And you could certainly reproduce many, many Ingres figure and portrait drawings that would show how capable he could be of close observation and objective reportage. However, he also felt that it was important to go beyond Nature, "no matter what the risk." Of course, this risk seemed unavoidable primarily when drawing or painting attractive women--clearly sexual attraction produced physical distortions in Ingres work, which he then stuggled with, an effect which is virtually the emotional and formal motor of his best work.) Likewise, Renoir as a young man was a fully qualified practitioner of academic figure drawing and painting who, um, drifted as he got older. You may not like the results of his drift, but his practice represents a pretty conscious choice on his part. As I recall, Renoir even commented (half approvingly, half bemusedly) on Ingres' tendency to distort attractive women, I think in the context of the unnatural neck of the female nude figure in "Roger Saving Angelica" of 1839.

I think the tension between strict accuracy and imaginative distortion is one of the main elements of all figurative art, and crops up especially in the best stuff. While Michelangelo, Rubens and Raphael were capable of extraordinarily accurate rendering, their finished work abounds in 'unnatural' proportions and rhythmic effects superimposed on objective rendering. Michelangelo commented on that in discussing the Classical artist who carved the Torso Belvedere: "This man knew nature, and he also knew more than nature."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 29, 2008 2:29 AM

The Ingres pictures bother me quite a bit more than the Renoir ones. Even the face on the first one you reproduce is a bit disturbing. The best I can do is say that there's something odd about the cheeks and mouth compared to the rest of her features. The effect reminds me of John Currin, to tell you the truth.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 29, 2008 9:04 AM

Renoir may be "distorting"---but I like it. If one looks at the forest instead of the trees--the whole composition, it works for me! What "doesn't work" for me is when the distortion actually seems to be making the subject less attractive....wierdly big arms, wierdly bug eyes. Maybe it's the result of attraction...but, y'know, euwww.

Posted by: annette on January 29, 2008 9:34 AM

All -- What prompted this post was my discovery of Renoir's version of Valadon's ear. Flipping through a book about him turned up the arm as well. A book I have about Ingres calls out some of the arm distortions in his portraits, so I included him to make the post meaty. I purposely avoided mentioning artistic license in the (successful) hope that commenters would hop in with interesting insights, information and opinions -- thank you all for your good contributions.

From what I've read as well as some limited personal experience, even attaining a good likeness requires some slight, subtle exaggeration of the subject's features: call it a mini-caricature. The trick is not to go too far.

Ingres' paintings of Rievière and d'Haussonville look odd to me, but the others' distortions don't.

The Valadon ear is on a painting I've glanced at in books many times without noticing the oddity. Perhaps that's because it's such a small feature in a full-figure painting; plus, book reproductions make it even smaller in actuality. As a matter of fact, I spotted it when looking at a book that included segments of paintings from the Musée d'Orsay.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 29, 2008 10:55 AM

You're right, clio. The more I look at the right arm out of the liver, the more it looks like it's tracking back to an invisible right shoulder along her torso, not extruding from the middle of it.

And right on with the John Currin comparison, Derek. I've always found Ingres a little creepy, just the way Currin can be. Though Ingres was a much better draftsman than the current Cutie of Pseudo-Realistic Irony could hope to be.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 30, 2008 12:10 PM

I always enjoyed the "mistakes" in Ingres. Made his paintings much more weird and interesting than they're often said to be. That combo of icy-sexy schooled sophisticated perfection and clueless folk-art naivete ... It's almost dreamy, surreal ... Fun!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2008 12:14 PM

I'd love to see this blog sink its collective teeth into John Currin, to tell the truth.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 30, 2008 12:20 PM

Michael, whatclueless, folk-art naivete do you see in Ingres? This is such an astonishing statement that I have to assume that we use words completely differently, or your eyes suffer from some kind of ailment. (Sorry, but really!) Ingres is one of the most sophisticated draftsmen in Western history; when he distorts, it's deliberate. He wasn't an intelligent man, though, and his taste was always a little off, so you can find some truly appalling pictures in his oeuvre; appalling not because they're naive in the sense of being folksily executed, but because they are candy-box commercial art of the worst kind. (And yes, some commercial art is wonderful, but not the stuff produced in the mid-19th century.)

Posted by: alias clio on January 30, 2008 3:33 PM

A. Clio -- I may indeed need to give the eyeglasses a polish. Always a possibility. But every time I've seen Ingres' paintings live I've always been reminded of the work of early American intinerant portrait painters. That's despite the elegance and polish, of course. I'm thinking of the stiffness, the heads that look like they're carved of wood, the frozen expressions, the weird bodily distortions. Are you really sure he intended all the whackiness in his paintings? Finickiness of the sort he demonstrates sometimes results in proportions going out of whack, in the same way that in life an over-focus on details sometimes means the bigger picture gets lost track of. I don't consider any of this a criticism of Ingres, by the way, more an appreciation of what I find there.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2008 4:34 PM

Well, you could be right about "finickiness" and attention to detail distorting the final product. That I can agree with. I don't see any except incidental (i.e., fashionable) resemblances to US itinerant portrait painters. Really, if you look at Ingres' sketches, you can see what a master he was. But his motto according to Kenneth Clark was, "anything well drawn is well enough painted", so that may also be a factor. He wasn't a colorist.

Posted by: alias clio on January 30, 2008 4:49 PM

Ingres not a colorist? Perhaps just not the way one expects. He didn't earn a 20th century cognomen, "the erotic Frigidaire", for nothing!

And as for his unintelligence, I remember a remark by somebody: "Odd how memorable all of Ingres' aphorisms are, and how few people actually read Delacroix's essays."

Again, I stress the point: while Ingres was an amazing (and amazingly objective) portraitist of men(for doubters, check out the painted portrait of Louis Bertin or any of his pencil portraits of men), as far as real oomph goes, his work is more interesting the closer it comes to the topic of sexual attraction. When he was getting hot under the collar some psychic mechanism forced him to distort--presumably to convey the intensity of his sensations. (I will say from my personal life-drawing experience sexual attraction makes objective rendering much more difficult; I find drawing women I find unattractive a far easier task.) He's at his worst when trying to handle conventional history paintings or religious compositions, subjects that he can only deal with successfully when they concern beautiful women or angels.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 31, 2008 7:50 PM

You're right about the aphorisms. And I've certainly never tried to tackle one of Delacroix's essays. On the other hand, I'm not certain that "the erotic Frigidaire" amounts to a compliment.

Posted by: alias clio on February 1, 2008 6:49 AM

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