What Moves The Soul

It is no coincidence that Prud’hon’s beautiful models are closed off from the chaos around them

Art France
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.

Prud’hon was, however, wary of fame and his life drawings were a way of keeping him close to the basics of the art that mattered to him. He did more though than merely record the human figure, he personalised it: the tone of the flesh is entirely harmonious with the tone of the paper, sharing an organic link. “There should reign in a picture,” he wrote, “a gentle, tranquil but vigorous tone, pleasing the spectator without dazzling him and permitting the soul to enjoy everything that moves it.” His académies are this belief seen in practice and also private meditations as much as preparatory works.

While there are three studies of Joséphine in the exhibition there is no representation of either of the women he undoubtedly did love: his wife Jeanne Pennet, from whom, six children notwithstanding, he had separated, and his pupil turned mistress Constance Mayer. Prud’hon’s relationship with Mayer was complicated: they lived as man and wife and they worked together as collaborators for almost 20 years. He would produce drawings and sketches that she would work up into full-scale paintings and exhibit them under her own name, including, tellingly, a picture called The Dream of Happiness (1819). His work for and with Constance limited the time he spent on paintings of his own. It is one reason why, unlike most artists, he drew more académies rather than fewer as he got older and why he finished them, in lieu of paintings, to such a high degree. This is not to suggest that Mayer stopped Prud’hon from producing more substantial works since he had developed what amounted to apathy towards painting: the modus operandi worked to his benefit as well as hers.

The ménage, however, ultimately proved unsustainable. By 1821 Prud’hon’s wife, after a lifetime in mental asylums, was approaching death. Mayer meanwhile was depressed by ageing and unhappy at Prud’hon’s refusal to marry her. They had lost their studios and Prud’hon was in debt. Mayer’s response was to take his razor and cut her own throat: the blade reached through to her vertebrae. Prud’hon lived for only another 20 months, leaving one great unfinished and clearly personal figure painting—a tenebrous Crucifixion with the three Marys weeping at the foot of the cross.

One feature of his drawings is that for all the models’ health Prud’hon shows them rarely as hard-muscled but invariably as soft and almost boneless. They are, without exception, beautiful. They are also, when seen together, deeply enigmatic; figures rendered with  sympathy and exactitude that exist in a closed world of their own—a reflection of the man who drew them.