Dream of Ossian

7:00 AM

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Dream of Ossian, 1813

When perusing a webpage full of Ingres paintings, Dream of Ossian immediately caught my eye. The illuminated center that fades to darkness as your eye travels to the edges of the piece could be seen even though the painting was one among 24 others. Upon enlarging the painting, the technique and beauty of the depicted scene further captured my eye, and I knew I wanted to do my blog post on this piece of art.

Commissioned by Napoleon, Ingres finished Dream of Ossian in 1813. The painting was intended to hang in the Quirinal Palace in Rome, but today, the painting rests upon a wall in the Musée Ingres. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, I should probably explain the subject of the painting, something that honestly, completely confuses me. In 1760, James Macpherson, a Scottish poet, published Fragments of Ancient Poetry in the Highlands of Scotland, a collection of poems that he claimed to have translated from ancient manuscripts, some written by Ossian (also known as Oisín). Over the next few years, Macpherson published multiple other collections of poems. Now, here is the confusing part. Upon researching Ossian/Oisín, I came across contradictory explanations. Some claimed that Oisín was a historical Irish figure: a poet, warrior, and adventurer, and others claim he is of Scottish decent. No matter the case, his life is a legend, filled to the brim with adventure, triumph, and ultimate despair, when he rapidly ages after falling off a horse (he had been the same age for about 300 years while living on “the land of the young”). I believe this painting depicts that scene; the moments after he falls and begins to age, the years of decay rapidly catching up to him. He sits there, picturing his life as if it has been a dream. Images of his companions, enemies, and I believe, himself, encapsulate him, as the cloud to his right appears to be on a path to float in front of him. The harp, which Ossian rests upon reminds me of the guitar in the short story “The Diamond Guitar,” symbolizing the strings of life that he has traversed in his adventures.

Now, when Macpherson’s poems were first published, they were immediately embraced as masterpieces. Many people loved them, especially Napoleon. It is even believed that he carried a copy of the collection into battle. But, as time passed, skeptics approached the collections. They began to question the legitimacy of Macpherson’s claims. Did he actually track down the writings of Ossian, a historical figure people even began to doubt existed, and translate the poems into practically perfect prose? And were these writings actually Scottish, or were they Irish? Did Macpherson find the writings, translate them, but then add some extra flair to get his literary point across? These are the questions that made me dislike this painting. I Google searched the painting, Macpherson, Ossian/Oisín, and the collection of poems, and still could not find sufficient evidence that I felt answered all these questions. For someone who loves to find the answer to things, this became very frustrating.

Thus, this painting taught me an important lesson, probably one that my parents would claim is the opposite of what they taught me. Sometimes, you do need to judge a book by its cover. What drew me to this painting was how breathtaking it was, but the story behind the painting utterly confused me and left me wondering whether I liked the painting or not. I should have just accepted the painting for what it is: beautiful, captivating, a masterpiece, but no, I just had to let my curiosity get the better of me. The reason for the painting and the story behind it spoiled the magic for me, left me wondering why… just, why?

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