Postcard from Montauban, France: Day-trip to the birthplace of Ingres

Above: Pont Vieux (1335) spanning the Tarn River

A short, half-hour train ride from Toulouse, the ancient city of Montauban was chartered in 1144. The population is more than 60,000, but the narrow streets in the historic center certainly contribute to its small-town feeling.

Discovering both the Cathedral (1739) and the 14th-century Romanesque Eglise Saint Jacques both closed for restoration work, this pilgrim found the closest she could get to paying tribute to Saint Jacques was to partake of his namesake dish, coquilles Saint Jacques. We were fortunate to find the outdoor tables at Du Nord au Sud offer lunch service until 4 p.m., not all that common in this region of France. The Basque-influenced appetizer was rich and studded with flavorful chorizo, and the scallops were wonderfully sweet and tender.

Housed in the handsome 1664 Episcopal Bishop’s palace, the Ingres Bourdelle Museum alone is well worth the train trip. We short-changed it a bit on our visit and didn’t explore its lower basement floors, the remnants of an earlier castle built for the Counts of Toulouse. And the portion of the museum dedicated to Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), a sculptor who studied under Rodin and taught Giacometti and Henri Matisse, had not yet reopened following the museum’s recent renovation.

The large pink brick compound above (right center) is the former Episcopal Bishop’s Palace (1664) that houses the Musee Ingres Bourdelle.

Born in Montauban, Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres (1780-1867) was encouraged to pursue multiple forms of art at an early age by his father. He was sent to Toulouse to study as a young man, and by age 14 he was performing second violin with the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. “Ingres’ violin” is a phrase still employed to refer to someone’s hidden talent overshadowed by another more dominant one. At age 17, the young man was accepted to study under Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) in Paris.

While some of his paintings received critical acclaim in Paris, others did not. Ingres straddled an independent course somewhere between Neoclassicism and Romanticism during a period when artists were expected to fit neatly into set categories or schools. Ingres regarded the work of his greatest rival, the Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), as inferior; and Delacroix viewed that of Ingres with the same level of respect. Several years after receiving the 1801 Prix de Rome, Ingres made his way there for an extended stay before returning to France. Feeling his talents still underappreciated in Paris, in 1834 the artist accepted a six-year term as head of the Academy in Rome.

Being in Italy afforded Ingres ample exposure view works by the artist he always held in the highest esteem, Raphael (1483-1520). His veneration of the artist was so well known that, when Raphael’s remains were exhumed in the Pantheon in Rome, Pope Gregory XVI bestowed a portion of them on Ingres. The artist had a special reliquary designed to hold the shards, and the coffer is displayed in the museum in Montauban.

In 1851, Ingres gifted a large collection of his work, that of his students and Greek vases to his hometown. Following Ingres’ directives after his death in 1867, Montauban received additional works, including thousands of the artist’s drawings.

It has been said, gentlemen, that my studio is a church, and I say that’s absolutely true! Let it be a church, a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of beauty and good. Let all those who enter and leave it, be they reunited or dispersed, indeed let all my pupils be the propagators of truth, wherever they are and at all times.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867

Ingres probably would have been pleased to see his enduring influence as evidenced by the museum’s inclusion of contemporary art re-interpreting his work. He believed artists’ responsibility was to build upon the great art that preceded them.

Make copies, young man, many copies. You can only become a good artist by copying the masters.

Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres (1780-1867)

Is there anyone among the great men who have not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

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