Russ’ Art Blog: The Dream of Ossian


Thanks to the holiday season, I haven’t really been able to do much at all, let alone an art blog.  So, let’s start off 2010 the right way, with me trying to do this once per week.

This is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ The Dream of Ossian (1813, Oil on canvas, 348 x 275 cm), one that, as usual, I came across while looking for something else. It caught my eye, and I thought it was good enough to feature here.

The first thing that caught my eye was the white area in the center of the piece.  It’s otherworldly, and soft compared to the bottom of the work. With a certain lack of contrast too, it’s strong but not overwhelming.  It brings your eye to the center of the work, without forcing it there.

The red of the man’s cloak, along with the green of his shirt, grab your attention as well, almost pulling you back into his reality. There’s a bit of a fight in the image, as to whether it’s the story or the storyteller that matters.  Overall, Ingres’ use of color/palette and the brightness counteract one another, and it engages the viewer to figure out on their own which they prefer.

The man at the bottom also has far more contrast, giving the effect that he is in a different realm, in reality where the group above is not.  Symbols like the man’s white hair, the lyre, and the staff, all give the idea that this is a storyteller, and these soft, glowing characters above represent his stories.

In fact, Ossian was described at the time of the painting as being a great bard, much like Homer (of The Odyssey, not of 742 Evergreen Terrace).  The painting represents Ossian and his great stories, though there has been some debate as to whether Ossian really existed (or was a figment of poet James Macpherson’s imagination).

Regardless of the story behind it, in general terms the art represents the idea of a storyteller very well. Characters and stories are often like the ghosts of imagination, never truly real, and yet still very strong and full of influence. Ingres leaves the discussion of story vs. storyteller to the viewer, and any time an artist can engage the viewer in their own thoughts means a successful work of art.


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