Born the tenth son of a stonecutter in the Burgundian town of Cluny, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (April 4, 1758 – February 16, 1823) had a spectacular life filled with all of the romance and tragedy befitting an official portraitist to the court of Napoleon Bonaparte. A natural artist who showed promise from an early age, Prud'hon’s life was turned upside down when both of his parents died when he was very young. Fortunately, Father Besson, a Benedictine monk from the local abbey of Cluny, took the orphan under his wing and saw to his education.
The artist altered both halves of his birth name, Pierre Prudon, to pay homage to the great Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, while simultaneously evoking the grandeur of landed gentry. It was a gamble that paid off, allowing Prud'hon to make a name for himself studying painting in Dijon, then Paris and Italy. While his contemporaries adopted a rigorous neoclassical approach, Prud'hon absorbed the sensuous Hellenic grace of Renaissance artists Antonio da Correggio and Leonardo da Vinci, along with contemporary Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship.
Upon his return to Paris in 1789, Prud'hon enthusiastically supported the French Revolution while living in poverty, making a meager income through portraiture and graphic work. At the dawn of the Reign of Terror, Prud'hon submitted erotic allegorical paintings of the pleasures and torments of love to the Salon of 1793. He sought refuge in a village in Franche-Comté, spending two years making work before returning to Paris in 1794, where the nation’s leading artist Jacques-Louis David coolly received him.
Although Prud'hon was well aware of David’s artistic influence, he refrained from adopting the precise draftsmanship of neoclassicism, preferring to maintain a highly individualistic style that favored the soft allure of the rococo. Though not esteemed by his peers, Prud'hon’s large-scale work brought him recognition while decorating private mansions for the newly emerging powers that be, and soon drew the attention of Napoleon.
With the empire established in 1804, Prud'hon was appointed drawing master to Empress Josephine, Napoleon's first wife, and then to Empress Marie Louise, Napoleon's second wife, creating portraits of both. His masterpiece, Portrait of the Empress Josephine (1805) displays the artist’s unmistakable gift for sensuality, seduction, and mystery.
Soon thereafter Prud'hon would go on to create Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime for the courtroom of the Palace of Justice, which he unveiled at the Salon of 1808. With Crime depicted as a fugitive assassin, Prud'hon reveled in his gifts as one of the great allegorical painters of his age.
His talent for incorporating ancient archetypes and elements of classical texts into his work, which was suffused with the dreamy melancholy of Romanticism, allowed Prud'hon to blend the present with the distant past, echoing the eternal power of empire. "Prud'hon's true genius lay in allegory; this is his empire and his true domain," the Romantic master Eugène Delacroix later wrote.
The fall of Napoleon’s empire did not harm Prud'hon’s career, but a number of tragedies in his personal life lead to his ultimate collapse. After separating from an unhappy marriage with Jeanne Paugnet in 1803, he met a young painter, Constance Mayer (1775-1821), who was to become his pupil, collaborator, and intimate until she committed suicide in his apartment at the Sorbonne. It is believed the shock of her death hastened his own. His final work, Christ Expiring on the Cross, which lay unfinished at the time of his death, was a monumental work of grief for his beloved.
Although Prud'hon left no pupils, his work informed and shaped a generation of Romantic painters to come. As a student, Théodore Géricault painted copies of his "thunderously tragic pictures," using elements of Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime in Géricault’s landmark work, The Raft of the Medusa. Along with Ingres, Prud'hon has become one of the most influential artists of the French neoclassical period.
Written by Miss Rosen.
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