Pierre Paul Prud'hon

The work of the French painter Pierre Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823) stands between neoclassicism and romanticism. Best known for his allegorical paintings, he was also a successful portraitist.

Pierre Paul Prud'hon was born at Cluny on April 4, 1758. In 1774 he went to Dijon to study painting. He was so successful as a student that in 1780 a nobleman of the district made it possible for him to go to Paris to study at the Royal Academy. In 1784 Prud'hon won the Prix de Rome, an award given by the academy to allow promising artists to study in Italy. He was in Italy until 1788.

In 1791 Prud'hon began showing his paintings in the Paris exhibitions (Salons). During the Revolutionary turmoil of the early 1790s he retreated to Burgundy, but after 1796 he resided in Paris and by 1800 was moving in the highest circles surrounding Napoleon, the new ruler of France. Prud'hon was appointed drawing master to Empress Josephine, Napoleon's first wife, and to Empress Marie Louise, Napoleon's second wife. He also enjoyed substantial patronage from the Napoleonic government for the execution of various art projects.

During Prud'hon's career, painting in France was pervaded by a severe neoclassicism and ruled by Jacques Louis David, the painter who brought the neoclassic style to its culmination and who dominated the arts in France from about 1785 to 1815. Prud'hon was well aware of the prevailing style, and one of his best friends was Antonio Canova, the leading neoclassic sculptor of the period. However, French painting was turning away from the precise draftsmanship and sculptural solidity of neoclassicism even before 1815. Within this context of shifting styles and a transitional period, Prud'hon developed an individualistic style which stands apart from the classicism of his period; his work looks back to the soft, decorative painting of the rococo and also forward to the bravura and drama of 19th-century romanticism.

In the Union of Love and Friendship, an allegorical work of 1793, Prud'hon makes obvious reference to classical antiquity, but the delicacy with which the graceful nude forms are rendered, the decorative composition, and the soft atmospheric tonality are very different from David's hard classicism. By 1808, the date of Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, Prud'hon had moved decisively in the direction of early romanticism. This painting, with its swooping forms, its air of desperate drama, and its shadowy lighting, links him to the romantic style which was to replace neoclassicism about 1820 and reach its height of expression in the work of Eugène Delacroix. Prud'hon was a respected portraitist, and his most famous work in this area is Portrait of the Empress Josephine (1805), which shows the Empress reclining languidly in a romantic, leafy glade.

The fall of the Napoleonic regime in 1815 inevitably damaged Prud'hon's artistic career, and his later years were also marred by personal unhappiness. He died in Paris on Feb. 16, 1823.

Further Reading on Pierre Paul Prud'hon

There is no biography or monograph on Prud'hon in English, and reference to him must be sought in general works. Recommended surveys include Walter Friedlaender, David to Delacroix (trans. 1952); Fritz Novotny, Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780-1880 (1960); and Jean Leymarie, French Painting: The Nineteenth Century (trans. 1962). An excellent analysis of the complex period in which Prud'hon began working is Robert Rosenblum, Transformation in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (1967).