Rare Event

Iconic artworks come face to face at Norton Simon 

By Bridgette M. Redman

History is being made at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum this month, as two masterworks — one that inspired the other — will come together for the first, and perhaps only, time in the United States.

Pablo Picasso had long been inspired by the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, particularly the portrait of Madame Moitessier, which the French artist completed in 1856 after spending 12 years creating it. 

While Picasso had only seen the work once as it was still in private hands, in 1932, he created his own painting that was inspired by it, “Woman with a Book.”

Now, in 2022, those works are being shown together as part of an exchange between Norton Simon, the owner of the Picasso, and London’s National Gallery, which houses the Ingres. “Picasso Ingres: Face to Face” opened in London in early June and will be there until October 9. It will move to Pasadena from October 21 to January 30.

The Norton Simon and National Gallery have had an ongoing exchange program, but this one represents something a little different, according to Emily Talbot, the Norton Simon museum’s chief curator.

“We had these two paintings that had this close relationship with each other, and we were both interested in showing them together,” Talbot says. 

“It made sense to do it as an exhibition with two venues. There was just such a rich story to tell about these two pictures about their relationship with each other and about the importance of one artist looking at another.”

The story was so rich that the two institutions jointly published a catalog exploring the relationship between the two works. 

The catalog includes articles by Talbot; Christopher Riopelle, the Neil Westreich Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery; and Susan L. Siegfried, the Denise Riley Collegiate Professor Emerita at the History of Art and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. 

That National Gallery is the publisher, and Yale University Press is distributing it.

“It tells you a lot about the relationship between the two paintings,” Talbot says. “It’s full of historical information and has a timeline and really wonderful images.”

The 72-page catalog will be available in the gift shops of both museums.

Talbot says they are uninstalling one of the Norton Simon galleries in the 19th century wing to make room for this exhibition. They’ll install the two paintings side by side on the main sightline wall.

They’ll adopt a variation of the graphic design that the National Gallery created for its version of the exhibition, which lifts the profiles from the mirror reflections in both paintings and has them face off with each other. 

“We’re installing them alongside the entryway,” Talbot says. “You have this moment of looking at the paintings and then when you turn around to leave the gallery, you’ll see these two profiles extracted from the paintings looking at each other. I hope it’s a moment that people are encouraged to look back again at the paintings and think about the ways they’re speaking to each other.”

Talbot visited the London exhibition, where they have dedicated an entire gallery to this display, showing just the two pictures. 

She says they painted the gallery a deep purple and encourages guests to look at the relationships between the two pieces. 

The texts at the National Gallery focus on the two women in the paintings. Madame Moitessier was the wife of a wealthy merchant, and while Ingres was turning down portrait work at that time in favor of historical work, he was impressed by her beauty.

The woman in the Picasso painting was his lover at the time, Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17 when they became lovers — Picasso was 45 and living with his first wife. He and Walter share a child, Maya Widmaier-Picasso.

Ingres’ work was highly naturalistic, but he was known to inspire many modernists, including Picasso. Picasso’s “Woman with a Book” shows Walter in the iconic Moitessier pose, but he abstracted the palette and made the picture more erotic. The mirror reflection, which had appeared in several of Ingres’ works up to that point, was recreated in the Picasso, except it doesn’t reflect his lover; it shows an androgynous profile that is said to represent Picasso.

Because Picasso figures so heavily in the Norton Simon collection, it’s handling the exhibition differently than its British counterpart.

“We’re really using this moment to delve deeply into the history of our painting and the exciting moment to bring it together with the work that inspired it,” Talbot says. “We’re installing those two with a number of other works by Picasso from our collection. We’ll have a few works by Picasso from the 1920s and even afterward from 1965.”

Talbot says that showing the works together gives visitors the chance to deeply study their similarities and differences and the way the two works speak to each other. She gives the example of the gazes of the women.

“Madame Moitessier looks you right in the eye and she’s half smiling, kind of a Mona Lisa smile,” Talbot says. “There’s a moment of familiarity between you as the viewer and her.”

When Picasso reinterpreted the painting, he pivoted the face of the female figure, so she is looking past the viewer. 

“He gets at more this kind of internal state of thinking,” Talbot says. “She’s sort of withdrawn, and we’re not given access to what she might be thinking about. There’s that little bit of distance that he introduces. … There’s just a number of really wonderful, complicated, interesting, troubling dimensions to the way that relationships between viewer and sitter are set out and the ways that Picasso sort of plays with that and takes it in a different direction.”

Guests can immerse themselves and ask a lot of questions, Talbot says. She also hopes they will understand that Picasso was not just about breaking boundaries and surprising people. He was really immersed in the history of art and was deeply inspired by it.

“It’s a story about the way that art inspires art,” Talbot says. “Our art comes from somewhere. For Picasso in particular, it was so much about a dialog with artists that he admired — both his contemporaries and the people that had come before him.”

The Picasso, which is an icon of the Norton Simon collection, hasn’t traveled much, nor has the Ingres portrait. It’s why it offers people in Pasadena the rare opportunity to see these works together.

“We’re able to really enrich the story that we’re telling about (the Picasso) by bringing it together with this painting that inspired it,” Talbot says. “It’s such a unique opportunity to see them together. … It’s the first time they’ve ever been seen together. They have once been exhibited in the same city, but never in the same room. This opportunity won’t come again.”

With the pairing, she says, viewers get a rich history of art making in the 19th and 20th centuries and a look at the values of art over a 100-year period.

While the works are at the Norton Simon, there will be a series of three lectures by the authors of the catalog in October, November and January.

“Picasso Ingres: Face to Face”

WHEN: Friday, October 21, to Monday, January 30

WHERE: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena

COST: $15 adults; $12 seniors 62 and older; free children 18 and younger, students with valid ID and museum members

INFO: nortonsimon.org

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