Two paintings, one classically 19th-century and another 20th-century modern painting that is its artistic mirror have gone on display together for the first time.

The story goes that Pablo Picasso was on a visit to Paris in 1921 and saw the 1856 painting, Madame Moitessier by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and was inspired to produce his own interpretation.

The result was Picasso’s ‘Woman with a Book’ that was, by coincidence, shown off in Paris in 1932 at one exhibition, at the same time that its muse, Madame Moitessier was being sold in an auction house across town.

The two have danced around each other ever since, until now, finally, they are side by side at the National Gallery for the first time.

Superficially they do look very similar. The same pose with a pensive hand by the face. A reflection in the mirror behind. One holding a fan, the other an opened book.

Recent research has however uncovered considerable changes to both paintings that have thrown new light on the relationship. Although Picasso’s painting is said to be based on the earlier, modern scans of the layers of paint show that while Picasso ended up with a mirror to Madame Moitessier, it almost certainly didn’t start that way and was slowly transformed over a number of months into the mirror that it became.

Madame Moitessier also underwent radical changes. Partially as the artist, Ingres was pretty uninterested in portrait painting and took years to complete it. So long that by the time he got around to the final version, clothing fashions had changed to such a degree that the entire dress had to be repainted. Underneath that floral print is a bright yellow dress that had fallen out of favour.

But that’s the science at work to reveal the layers beneath, what’s really in the show are two paintings that ended up being their mirror image and together at long last. What the pairing allows is for people to compare two very different styles of painting that produced the same end result in their own unique ways and allows the viewer to see how artistic fashions change over time.

The two paintings are side by side in the National Gallery until 9th October 2022


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