Madame Rivière - Fragment V is part of a series of diptychs Alison Watt painted between 1996-7 that draw on the society portraits and erotic nudes of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres’ work, and in particular his depiction of opulent fabrics, has long been a source of inspiration for Watt, who recalled being particularly struck by his Madame Moitessier (1856) on a visit to the National Gallery, London, as a child. The portrait, dazzlingly adorned in sumptuous garb, continued to captivate her and this documented fascination was a factor in her being invited to become the National Gallery Associate Artist in 2006. As she recalled: ‘Whenever I look at Madame Moitessier I find myself being drawn away from her face, which is looking at me. My eye always drops to the fabric of the dress and I find myself becoming lost in that area of the painting. The longer you look at it, the stranger it becomes because your eye begins to play tricks on you. The fabric moves in and out of focus, certain areas loom forward, others recede…’ (Alison Watt, quoted in Alison Watt: Phantom, The National Gallery Company, London, 2008, p.13).
In the present work, Watt reimagines Ingres’ Portrait of Marie-Françoise Rivière of 1805 (Louvre), adopting the sensuous pose which emphasises the figure’s feminine curves, while eliminating extraneous detail, cropping in severely on the form which is now nude. Watt’s exclusion of the head of the figure, and the extrication of the sumptuous textile to its own canvas, turns the work from a portrait to a study of flesh and materials, and draws a purposeful metaphor between cloth and skin. The fabric itself is magnified, becoming a series of curves and folds, which echo the wrinkles and creases of the body. The colour palette across the diptych is unified and subdued, with the chalky, pinks and tans relating the flesh and fabric, the blue of the figure’s veins echoing the tone of the central folds. Watt’s ability to draw out the sensuousness of the materials has become a defining feature of her oeuvre. As she stated in 2004: ‘I came to realise that the paintings of fabric were more sensual than the paintings of the body.’ (Alison Watt, quoted in Alison Watt, exh. cat., Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 2004, unpaginated).
Included in her seminal exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1997, the present work is crucial in demonstrating the interplay between figuration and abstraction, which plays a pivotal roll in so many of Watt’s most accomplished paintings. The highly figurative nude references her earlier more representational style, such as her seminal portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1989), whilst the abstracted counters of the softly folding fabrics are prophetic of her more recent work, including her 2000 exhibition Shift at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, which featured twelve large- scale paintings, taking materials as their sole subject matter.
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