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Sfumato and grace: “Female Nude”, c.1810, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (©CLICHÉ BERNARDOT/MUSÉE BARON MARTIN-FRANCE)

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) was one of many French artists who worked their way through the French Revolution, then Napoleon’s rise and fall, and who emerged to paint on under the decidedly unheroic Bourbon restoration. Jacques-Louis David was the most notable, although his role as a signatory to the death warrant of Louis XVI meant exile in Brussels when Louis XVIII took up the throne (the King nevertheless offered the regicide painter amnesty). Prud’hon, however, was the artist above all others whose eye, through these turbulent decades, remained most firmly fixed on art rather than politics.

Although he can be classed a Neoclassicist—he was a superb draughtsman of the human figure and his major paintings were allegories that derived from classical models—he was also, in his sensibility and handling, a Romantic painter who endowed his work with emotion as much as moral strictures. For Delacroix, Prud’hon “succeeded in combining the grace of Leonardo and Correggio with the noble spirit of antiquity”. David, meanwhile, suggested slightingly, “He is the Boucher or Watteau of our time. Let him alone; what he does will do no harm.” For Baudelaire he was “that amazing mixture . . . That soft, artful and almost invisible line which winds beneath his paint is a legitimate subject for surprise.” Whatever was going on around him he remained largely impervious to fashion and so stood outside the artistic mainstream (he was not invited to join the Academy until 1816). It is perhaps precisely because Prud’hon lived in interesting times but didn’t paint them that he remains relatively little known today. 

Dulwich Picture Gallery is now mounting a small show—the first dedicated to Prud’hon in this country—of 13 works on paper. The exhibition is subtitled “Napoleon’s Draughtsman” which, while it taps into the Waterloo anniversary, is not entirely accurate. Prud’hon was indeed a celebrated draughtsman (usually in black and white chalk on blue or grey paper) but he wasn’t the Emperor’s man so much as his two wives’. Napoleon favoured the more muscular and martial art of David, Antoine-Jean Gros and François Gérard but Joséphine and, from 1810, Marie-Louise, preferred Prud’hon’s soft modelling, sfumato and grace. He was drawing-master to both empresses (with a salary of 500 francs a month to instruct Marie-Louise) and designed not just decorations for the Hôtel de Ville to celebrate the Emperor’s second marriage but also designs for Marie-Louise’s new apartments and the crib that would hold her infant son, the King of Rome.

The drawings at Dulwich are fascinating not just for their exquisite craft (all soft hatchings, immaculately rendered light and shade and three-dimensionality) but because they represent the side to his character that shied away from public art. He had become, almost despite himself, a celebrated painter through his portrait of Joséphine in the grounds of Malmaison (1805)—a masterpiece of melancholy eroticism that led some gossips to assume the artist was in love with the empress—and with his allegory of Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1808), which was to influence Géricault and Girodet among other young Romantics.

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