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Monday, May 28, 2012

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Los Angeles and Las Vegas are two of the most spectacular cities in this country. But Interstate 15 across the Mojave Desert of Southern California, which connects them, has to be one of the bleakest, most barren stretches of super highway ever built. Yet, it's how you get from one place to the other. The French painter, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon is like that road. Art historians would cast him as a minor talent from the early nineteenth century. He was far overshadowed by the great Neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David, and by Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault, the masters of the Romantic era. But Prud'hon is how you get from one to the other. The word "bleak" might be a bit harsh in describing his work, but by the same token, his scenery is nothing to write home about.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon Self-portrait
Prud'hon was born in 1758 in Cluny. His training began in Dijon, then continued in Paris, where, in 1784, he won the Prix de Rome allowing him to absorb the best the Italian Renaissance had to offer. It was an experience that marked his style for the rest of his life. Back in Paris, while everyone else was doing their best to be Davidian, Prudhon was being Leonardian and Raphaelian and Correggian. He was also heavily influenced by the Neoclassical Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova. Jacques-Louis David described him as the "Boucher of our time." Inasmuch as Boucher's Rococo style of painting had long been out of favor, it was not a compliment.

Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais
Much of Prud'hon's early work consisted of book illustration. He came to prominence during the Napoleonic era working for the publisher, Didot. His designs for government stationery won him notice by Napoleon and particular his wife, the Empress Josephine, whom he painted in 1805 (right). It's a dark portrait, the figure dramatically lit by the setting sun, and posed in a romantic, glimmering gauze gown with a red stole. There is a melancholy quality to the work, as if the empress has come to realize that she is about to be cast off because she's been unable to provide Bonapart an heir.

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, 1808, Pierre-Paul Prudhon
Prud'hon's most dramatic work came in 1808, an enormous canvas commissioned for the Palais de Justice (now in the Louvre). It's grand title, Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (above), depicts Cain fleeing the scene of his crime, having not only killed his brother but stolen his clothes as well.  The dramatically foreshortened, nude body of Abel is arrayed in a harsh, moonlit arc across the bottom of the canvas. It ought to win some kind of prize as the most erotically pose dead body in the history of art. Up above, the angels of human justice and divine vengeance remind those having business in the French court system of the time that, as we might say today, if the left one don't get you the right one will.

Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Theodore Gericault
The figure of Abel in the painting must have made quite an impression on the Romantic era artist Theodore Gericault. One finds a very similar anatomical presentation of a seminude body in his famed The Raft of the Medusa (above). It's not surprising. Early in his life Prud'hon was a victim of what we would call today, husband beating. It was a marriage that lasted most of his life and brought him no small amount of misery. Toward the end of his life, he was much adored by the growing group of Romantic artists, as much for his resistance to "Davidian tyranny" and his own tragic marital situation, as for his painting skills. He was seen even then as the road they traveled to get from Neoclassicism to Romanticism--not a particularly scenic drive, but straight and true as I-15 across the Mojave Desert.

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