The neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was born in the town of Montauban in 1780. From the days of art-history classes in college, the crystal clarity of his paintings has always struck me.

The town of Montauban sits about 45 minutes north of Toulouse. One of its celebrated public spaces is a fine brick square, the perfect setting for a relaxed alfresco lunch. Montauban is also home to the Musée Ingres Bourdelle. We read that Ingres left most of his possessions to his hometown, much of which the museum exhibits. Additionally, just before the pandemic struck, the museum had reopened after over two years of renovation and art restoration.

The perfect recipe for a late-summer day trip.

First stop: La Place Nationale and lunch. From the time of the establishment of Montauban in the 12th century, this square was the center of commercial, administrative and judicial life. 

Thanks to its propitious location along the Tarn River and in the middle of region rich in resources, Montauban was an important marketplace. Picture silks from Aleppo, dried fruits from Alexandria, spices from India, Indonesia or Quercy, and linens from Flanders, Rodez or Normandy.

In the Common House at one corner of the square, the consuls of the city deliberated on the affairs of the city. Guarded here were the charters of 1144 and 1195, which defined the commercial and judicial administrative powers of the commune, and the official weights and measures, essential tools for the smooth running of trade.

The pillory, a stone pillar to which convicted criminals were attached, stood in front of the western cover. Capital sentences were carried out in the square, attracting large crowds, crowded to the roofs, sometimes rented out for the occasion.

At the beginning and again in the middle of the 17th century, fires destroyed most of the medieval half-timbered buildings. In reaction, the architects of the various reconstructions required the exclusive use of brick, and the vaulting of roofs on ribbed crossings, the alignment of the facades and the elevation of pilasters. These measures reflect the desire to unify the architecture, such as facilitating the circulation of air and light under the covers. This is largely the square we see today.

Above the portal of one corner, an engraved stone solemnly announces PLACE ROYALE. Alas, this is a misnomer. Despite the installation in 1704 of the marker and despite the enthusiasm of a chronicler who, a few years later, compared it to the Place des Vosges in Paris, the Place de Montauban cannot be considered a royal place. In 1657, there were plans to erect an equestrian statue of the Sun King to thank him for his help in the reconstruction of the square; the sculptor Jean Dussault was commissioned in 1659 to carry out the work. The elegant facades could have provided a beautiful setting for the royal figure, but nothing came of it. The statue of the king seems never to have been made.

Montauban, which avoided much of the revolutionary fever elsewhere in France, condemned only one citizen to the guillotine. Jean Cladel, a modest saddle maker, had been accused of being the leader of a counter-revolutionary riot. Following a hasty trial, on the morning of 11 May 1793, he was put to death in the square. The same year, the revolutionaries renamed the square La Place Nationale. (source)

Fortunately, today, executions and revolution don’t occupy the space. Commerce is alive and well, especially the edible kind.

After lunch, we walked through narrow streets to the formal portal to the Musée Ingres Bourdelle. 

(Ingres is not the only favored son of Montauban; the sculptor Émile-Antoine Bourdelle was born here in 1861. A floor of the museum is dedicated to his robust sculptures. Not quite as attractive to us as the exhibits related to Ingres. If you’re interested, you can see examples of his work here.) 

You probably have seen reproductions of a few of Ingres’ most famous works. Most likely, his La Grande Odalisque and The Turkish Bath. Despite his never having traveled there, the Orient, at least his imagined version of it, fascinated Ingres. He also loved the voluptuous ladies. There was a lot of sensuality in his fantasies of the Orient. He also inhabited an idealized gem-like vision of classical antiquity. Painting portraits of aristocrats and the occasional emperor helped pay the bills. Here is a collage of some of his most well-known paintings. (source)

We had hoped to see at least a couple of these. But they are too internationally famous and coveted. They are scattered among major museums around the world, including the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Armée in Paris; the Met in New York; the National Gallery in London; and the Cleveland Museum of Art. And not in Montauban.

Instead, the collections of this museum offer context about Ingres and his work. Handsome galleries showcase works from the centuries before Ingres; these are the types of works that served as his artistic foundation. Works by artists such as Raphael and Poussin.

One room includes some of the furniture and objects from Ingres’ home and studio.

Another exhibits modern works inspired by Ingres’ work.

The centerpiece, however, is an exhaustive exhibition of his sketches. There are something like a hundred slide-out panels covered with sketches of all kinds. This is a place for a true student of Ingres, worthy of another dedicated visit.

The next time we are in Paris (post-covid), we will go on an Ingres pilgrimage. Then we can return to Montauban and dig into his sketches.

While we were being all cultural in the museum, the weather outside had turned cloudy and rainy. Before the downpour, we had time to appreciate the view of the Tarn river behind the museum.

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