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|pierre-paul prud'hon: romantic allegorist
by Fred Stern
The career of Pierre Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823) spanned more than 40 years, from the end of the ancien regime to the French Revolution (1789), the Napoleonic Empire (1804-14) and Bourbon Restoration (1814-48). His classical draftsmanship made him the foremost master of the female figure. He gained the favor of Napoleon himself, serving as portraitist to both Empress Josephine and Marie-Louise, as well as instructing them in drawing. And perhaps most importantly, he painted huge, amorous allegories with titles like Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps and Remorse Follows.
Yet today his reputation is limited. Part of Prud'hon's problem, then as now, was the strength of the competition -- especially the influential Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David and his followers. Now, we have a chance to judge for ourselves, as the Metropolitan Museum has mounted the first-ever U.S. survey of his work, some 56 oils and 110 works on paper.
As opposed to the cold, academic approach of David and his school, Prud'hon's work reflects a languid, Rococo elegance. His foremost influence was Correggio, whose soft forms and gentle light were in distinct contrast to the brittle rigidity of Neoclassicism. David dismissed Prud'hon's style as a mere "reincarnation of Boucher and Watteau." But it proved soothing to the needs of the Empress Josephine, whose friend Prud'hon soon became.
One of 10 children of a stone cutter in Cluny, the young Prud'hon's talent quickly became apparent. At the age of 16 he went to study at Dijon under Francois Devosge, and entered the Royal Academy in 1776. After winning the Prix de Rome in 1784, he stayed in Italy until 1788, absorbing the lessons of antiquity.
In 1791 he began exhibiting at the Paris Salon, and to earn money and sharpen his skills he competed as a book illustrator, but always enduring the criticisms of his enemy David. Although membership in the French Academy was crucial for the commercial success of any artist of the time, he was not asked to join until 1816.
Prud'hon married at the age of 20, an unhappy union that nevertheless resulted in six children. Eventually, he chose to live with a student, Constance Mayer. They stayed together from 1803 till 1821, when she unexpectedly committed suicide. Two years later his own life came to an end, and soon after he was widely heralded as a tragic Romantic genius.
The Union of Love and Friendship, presented at the Salon of 1793, is his first allegorical painting (it now hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Here, Love in the form of an angel lightly embraces Friendship, clad partly in a shimmering blue robe, while Cupid eyes them from behind shrubbery. Sensuous and erotic, the adolescent figures have a porcelain-like quality, and appear to be modeled after Canova's sculpture Cupid and Psyche.
A second allegorical painting planned in 1793, but not completed until 1809, is Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps and Remorse Follows. Commissioned by the Empress Josephine for exhibition at the Salon of 1810, it was never delivered because the divorce of Napoleon and Josephine intervened. Now in a private collection, the painting portrays four figures marching festively in a lush forest glade, with Remorse trailing mournfully behind.
Allegories play an important part in Prud'hon's exquisite drawings, always rendered in black crayon and white chalk, usually on blue paper. Much admired by Delacroix as well as artists to this day, Prud'hon's drawings fetch remarkable prices at auction.
Portraits were an important part of Prud'hon's oeuvre. They also provided the bulk of his earnings, at least in the early years. Outstanding among these is The Man in the Riding Habit (1791). Near a lake, dotted with boats, sits a man in elegant yellow with a black coat and a riding crop. His pensive face belies his relaxed pose. His dark eyes follow the viewer.
A portrait of the artist's drawing teacher, Francois Devosge, is from this period. The elderly man, blind in one eye, is shown in a determined pose, holding a portfolio of drawing papers and a drawing pen. Prud'hon always credited Devosge with teaching him all he knew.
The most moving portrait of all is that of the Empress Josephine, begun in 1805 and completed four years later. The Empress is shown in the park at Malmaison in a sombre mood. Did she have forebodings of the coming end of her reign? Her elegant arms extend above and to the side of a stony bench, resting on a long red shawl that sets off her Empire dress, her eyes directed away from the viewer. Prud'hon's sympathy and liking for her are very clear.
Delacroix greatly admired the painting: "Had one last look at Prud'hon's Josephine. Exquisite talent! The breast with its imperfections, the arms, the head, the dress with its tiny specks of gold, it is all sublime," reads his journal entry for April 27, 1847.
The New York exhibition has only a single drawing of Constance Mayer, rendered in the usual black crayon and white chalk. Wearing an apron, the sitter seems to have just left her task and offers a quick smile to Prud'hon. The two worked closely together, with Prud'hon often preparing finished drawings and Constance executing the paintings. A number of compositions at the Met bear witness to this collaboration, including The Torch of Venus and A Water Nymph Teased by a Band of Cupids. The lively, smiling expression of Mlle. Mayer hints at her wit and good graces.
Love of luxury and pomp was a hallmark of the Napoleonic era and Prud'hon received a great many decorative commissions from Napoleonic officials. Of these, none proved more impressive than the long panels he developed for the Salon de la Richesse at the Hotel de Lannoy, Paris. Four canvases mounted on wood portray the Arts, Wealth, Pleasure and Philosophy. Another group of paintings shows "The Times of Day". The three paintings feature three female figures at their ease on daybeds, surrounded by putti. They personify Noon, Afternoon and Evening.
One of Prud'hon's most splendid commissions was to design the apartments of the new empress, Marie-Louise. He even designed a crib for the King of Rome, Napoleon's only son.
Quite a contrast to his commission for the Palais of Justice, the powerful Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime. Two grim, vigorous angels are shown suspended in a glowering sky pursuing the murderer, while the victim, whose androgynous whiteness contrasts with their dark colors, lies at their feet.
Psyche Carried Off by the Zephyrs (1808) is perhaps Prud'hon's finest presentation of the female body, eloquently extended and in an idyllic state of sleep. One of his few religious paintings, Christ on the Cross (1822), was completed less than a month before the artist's death. Its dramatic, shadowy form is thought to reflect the artist's unhappy state of mind after Constance Mayer's suicide.
It is unfortunate that a number of paintings show irreversible damage because of the artist's use of bitumen, an asphalt derivative and retardant which allowed for different drying times of the canvas. Always the perfectionist, Prud'hon went back over his canvases often to correct even the minutest imperfections. A number of the unfinished works in the show reveal his careful adjustments, notably, the luminous Venus at Her Bath.
The exhibition ends in a gallery titled, a bit comically, "A Dream of Happiness." Besides Christ on the Cross and a number of Prud'hon's other major allegories, it contains the astonishing The Soul Breaking the Ties That Bind It to Earth. Possibly Prud'hon's last work, the huge painting -- more than nine feet tall -- personifies the soul as a voluptuous young woman with wings, leaping upward toward the light. "She is nude," wrote Eugene Delacroix, "having loosed the heavy mantle of this mortal life, which lies in a heap at ther feet."
"Pierre-Paul Prud'hon," Mar. 10-June 7, l998, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.