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Two painters, two women, two portraits — one fascinating story of artistic influence

Left, <em>Madame Moitessier,</em> 1856 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London and right, <em>Woman with a Book,</em> 1932, Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, The Norton Simon Foundation, Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York
The National Gallery, London / The Norton Simon Foundation, Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York
Left, Madame Moitessier, 1856 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London and right, Woman with a Book, 1932, Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, The Norton Simon Foundation, Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York

It's said that Pablo Picasso once observed, "Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal." Or appropriate? Filch? Quote? Pinch? Steal gets right to it though. But in the case of these two great artists, they also honor, imitate, learn from, and certainly study. Studying these two portraits, two curators — one at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the other at the National Gallery in London — found interesting differences and similarities.

On display together for the first time in London, the paintings are now on view in Pasadena in the exhibition Picasso Ingres: Face to Face.

Similarities. What do you notice? Two women sitting in armchairs, patterned dresses, heads resting slightly in their hands. Each has a mirror on the wall.
Differences: One's rich, the other not so much. One holds a fan, the other a book. One looks directly (but not that warmly) at us. The other looks dreamily into the distance — away from the artist. One's got a Mona Lisa smile, the other, little rosebud lips. One's zaftig, one's bosoms are saying hello.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was at the top of his game when he painted Madame Moitessier in 1856. The portrait was commissioned by her family (paid for by her cigar merchant husband) and it took Ingres twelve years to finish. Life and other commissions interrupted.

Picasso was the most famous painter in the world when he did that portrait of his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1932.

He painted her obsessively that year. When they met in 1927 she was 17, he was 45. Norton Simon curator Emily Talbot says he spotted her outside a department store. "She had this look of Greek classicism that interested him," Talbot says.

The portrait took him just one or two days to do. And her pose, the chair, the mirror are salutes to Ingres. Picasso had admired the French master for decades. He saw Ingres' works at the Louvre, and saw this one — the Madame Moitessier portrait — in person at a big 1921 Paris exhibition. "But he didn't riff on it until 1932," says London National Gallery curator Christopher Riopelle. So it took a while to take on Ingres with Marie-Thérèse as the Woman with a Book.

Evidence of Ingres' influence (this is what art curators love to do): Emily Talbot says when Picasso and his artist friends spotted Madame Moitessier at the Paris show "they were sort of bowled over by what they saw. Until then, they didn't understand how strange Ingres was."

A detail view of <em>Madame Moitessier,</em> 1856, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London
/ The National Gallery, London
/
The National Gallery, London
A detail view of Madame Moitessier, 1856, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London

Art critics of the day certainly thought that, and slammed the 19th century painter for all his discrepancies — the anatomically incorrect, too long arms; her boneless hands (although the curator says in preparatory drawings "he shows the bends and joints in her fingers. It's only when he gets to the painting stage that the hands become more elastic." To me, they're leisure class hands; they don't do any hard work).

Well, some Paris critics pooh-poohed, but Picasso and pals loved the hands, the incorrect anatomy, the variations — deviations — from formal, academic precision. Ingres has been called "the founder of Modernism." Of course, Picasso would connect with that. And look at the hands he gives Marie-Thérèse. The right hand fingers look like dangerous fringe, and he lops off part of one, so we can see her pretty jowl. "I think Picasso was completely unbothered by making adjustments to naturalistic anatomical depiction," says Talbot.

There's no record of how, 75+ years apart, the two models felt about their century's major painters' portrayal of them. But their reunion, in our times, gives 21st century viewers a sense of the styles, talents and artistic values of art-makers whose work became influential and permanent.

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.