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This retrospective devoted to Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823) begins with his Sign of the Hatmaker Charton (1774), a naive artifact painted before the artist left Cluny in 1774 for Dijon to study. Who knowing just this homely object could have imagined that its creator would do some of the lushest nudes of both sexes made by any artist? After then going on to Paris, Prud’hon in the 1780s spent three years, three months in Rome. Returning to Paris in 1788, after failing to compete with David and David’s follower, Anne-Louis Girodet, he did a few works associated with the Revolution, but was not deeply involved in politics. Withdrawing from that city in the late 1790s to do portraits, he returned in 1801 and did his most famous paintings—Empress Josephine at Malmaison (1805) and a commission for the criminal court at the Palais de Justice, Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1808). The Restoration brought him commissions for religious allegories; and his last work was Christ on the Cross (1822), painted for the Strasbourg Cathedral.
Prud’hon lived in interesting times. Well represented in the Louvre, admired by many distinguished French art-writers, he has not until recently been much written about. This very full show, including history paintings, portraits, prints, and his absolutely magnificent drawings, shows Prud’hon to have been a strikingly uneven artist. Like Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), his bête noir, and Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, he made any number of serious paintings which today look extremely silly. But because he, unlike David or Ingres, is not a canonical painter, inevitably having so many weak works in exhibition raises questions about his ultimate stature. Part of the problem in some cases is Prud’hon’s subjects. The figures in Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, and Remorse Follows (1809) are beautifully painted, but what can we today make of that moralistic theme? As for Philosophy (1798–1801), his decoration for a newly rich man’s house, the Hôtel de Lannoy, the contemporary commentary by Bruun-Neergaard is sufficient to point to the problems we will have with this image: Philosophy is depicted by a woman whose countenance bears the signs of a sweet melancholy. In her right hand she holds a statue of Wisdom, which she presses to her breast; in her left hand, a bridle, as if inviting Wealth to consider Moderation. Above is a Spirit of Reason lighting the way below, a Spirit of Philosophy, who leans against a representation of Nature, at the base of which is a beehive; thus, like a bee taking honey from flowers, it must draw from Nature . . . (142). Some pictures in this show are positively silly. I defy anyone to look at the two putti and the woman “making eyes” at the viewer in Pleasure (1798–1801) and not find this combination of innocence and lasciviousness positively Nabokovian—Humbert Humbert would have loved this painting. And yet, Prud’hon was a real artist—his portraits charm, and even when his storytelling pictures tell bizarre stories, they are memorable images.
Prud’hon’s private life was disorderly. Divorced from his wife, the unstable alcoholic mother of their five children whom, when she repeatedly annoyed him excessively, he had sent to an insane asylum, he collaborated with Constance Mayer, a younger woman who became his lover. They worked very closely together; Mayer’s contribution to his art, and his to hers, are at some points hard to sort out. Together they painted Dream of Happiness (1819), a scene in which a beautiful couple with child are piloted down the river of life; but this idyllic life was not to be theirs. Prud’hon’s children did not accept her, and when after fifteen years of living together, he refused to marry her, she slit her throat; he died soon afterward, his studio filled with unfinished work.
Prud’hon was the Salvador Dali of his day—a painter capable of striking originality, even greatness, now and then, whose best art is all but submerged in a body of mediocre productions. Leaving aside his great drawings of nudes, and the portraits, a surprising amount of Prud’hon’s art has more affinity with camp than serious museum painting. He needs a very supportive presentation if he is to be received as something more than merely a specialist interest. The very thorough, highly academic catalogue by Sylvain Laveissière does not provide such support. Inspired by John Elderfield’s recent commentary on Prud’hon’s drawings, I wanted to review this exhibition, which falls outside the periods I write about.1 Interested in how Prud’hon anticipates the modernist tradition of drawing the nude—that tradition defined by the nudes of Ingres and Matisse—Elderfield has much, all of the greatest interest, to say about this “brilliantly unorthodox artist with an erratic career, for whom the very vocation of art was fraught with contradictions” (9). Prud’hon, Elderfield argues, felt deep ambivalence about being seen, an ambivalence which surfaces in his art in his “defense against feminization—or, rather, against the visibility of a complete, disturbingly dazzling femaleness” (19). And Elderfield has suggestive ideas about how the collaboration with Constance Mayer reinforced “the sentimental, ambiguous, and emotional, that is to say, conventionally ‘feminine’ aspects of Prud’hon’s artistic identity . . .” (50). We find in his preciously polished males and females an artist “picturing a potentially bisexual world, weighing the possibility of choice across both sides of a divided eroticism” (26). This personal development, in turn, must be set in a social history, in relation to "the marginalization of women that occurred in the . . . Revolutionary period and was institutionalized under the Code Napoléon. The result would be an objectifying transposition of idealized, passive . . . eroticism from the male onto the female body. . . " (44–45).
Detached as many of Prud’hon’s academic drawings are from their original role as studies for history paintings, it is natural to view them aesthetically. Anyone will get much visual enjoyment from these truly spectacular images, for Prud’hon presented nudes of both sexes as equally deserving of visual attention. Perhaps his relationship with Mayer has something to do with how he presented these gorgeous male and female models; I suspect that recent advertising and discussions of the politics of gender sensitize us to this concern. Laveissière’s catalogue doesn’t do justice to the true oddity of Prud’hon’s psychology. Of his Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, the artist wrote, “Justice pursues Crime without respite; it will never escape. In a wild and lonely place, greedy Crime murders his Victim under cover of darkness. . . . The fool! He does not see that Nemesis, that formidable agent of Justice, swoops down on him like a vulture on its prey . . . and will seize him to turn him over to her inflexible companion” (227). The female figure above pursues the murderer, whose nude male victim, frontally displayed, is as beautiful as any of the academic nudes. Here, as in his history painting, Andromaque and Astyanax—completed by Le Boulanger de Boisfremont in 1824—where Andromache embraces her son in order to express her undying affection for that child’s dead father, Hector, Prud’hon displays a truly uncanny vision of love. Great artists are expected to transcend their personal miseries in their art; Prud’hon, one senses, displays all too distractingly his emotional limitations.
Walking through this large-scale exhibition—accompanied by surprisingly few other spectators—I thought that Prud’hon was not well served by the kind of retrospectives given by the Metropolitan in the 1980s to Caravaggio and Manet, and by the Louvre a few years ago to David. Recently Thomas Crow and Whitney Davis have written very interestingly about Prud’hon’s era.2 An exhibition engaging their concerns—tracing the history of Neoclassicism, exploring the odd ways that erotic images were used during the French Revolution to express political interests—could be a real audience pleaser, for it would speak in an unacademic way to present day concerns about the politics of gender. But what I myself would most like to see would be a show building upon the argument of Elderfield’s book—a history of the nude as depicted by the leading French and Francophile artists, from Watteau and Fragonard to Richard Diebenkorn. That would be a great sight, such an exhibition would draw large crowds.
1 The Language of the Body. Drawings by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Text by John Elderfield, Drawings Selected by Robert Gordon (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996)- quotations in this paragraph are from this book.
2 I have learned from Whitney Davis’s unpublished 1993 Tomas Harris Lectures in the History of Art, University College, London and Thomas Crow, Emulations. Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).