How to find your own path? Thoughts on tradition and originality by 19th century French painter Ingres

I stumbled upon a collection of notes based on Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’ views on painting, art and life —Écrits sur l’art (‘Writings on Art’). I love to dive into the mind’s life of creative people. In his notes, Ingres talks about his apprenticeships, the artists he admires, how you should choose your colors, the difficulties he faces in his work as well as his thoughts on old age… But as I closed the book, what stuck in my mind was his disdain of originality. Originality for originality’s sake has absolutely no value according to him.

 

This can easily be understood if we regard him as a conservative — being a neoclassical painter himself, he famously rivaled throughout his career the Romantic painter Delacroix, who was the rising star breaking traditional rules.

 

Ingres (1780–1867) was trained in the workshop of the very classical painter David. His admiration soon went to the Ancient Greeks and the painter he placed above all the others: the Renaissance painter Raphael. Greek pottery and Raphael’s artworks were some of his lifelong inspirations. Classical artworks are at the root of his vision of art.

 

And yet, he was far from a mere imitator of the past. Even as he emulated previous Masters, he created unique masterpieces that can not be reduced to a set of classical rules or recipes. Even more so, his artworks have had an important influence on avant-garde movements and artists such as the Fauves and Picasso. How can one be so respectful of tradition, so un-interested by innovation for innovation’s sake, and yet create one’s original and even somehow pioneering path?