Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Prud’hon My Absence: Male Nude Leaning on a Rock

I ask my readers to forgive my several days absence, but your correspondent had heavy business obligations that kept him away.  I had also promised another work by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758--1823), so here is another magnificent academic drawing by the master, Male Nude Leaning on a Rock.
The model for this drawing was named Lena, one of two models used by Prud’hon with the same name.  Were there two Lena brothers, or father and son?  That is not known, and though Goncourt states that Lena was the ‘usual male model’ for Prud’hon, it’s unlikely with his bald pate and rather prominent features that he did much work for the artist.  Indeed, he seems to appear in only two other drawings.
This work is done on blue paper with black and white chalk.  I have not seen the original myself, but it appears that a smaller piece of paper was hitched to a larger one – you can see that the figure’s toe and part of the rock extend beyond a horizontal line near the bottom of the page.
This drawing is little short of magnificent.  Note how Prud’hon uses white chalk to accentuate the straining muscles of the arms, which are used to support the weight of the model.  Note, too, how the figure seems to twist to one side as it leans forward – a natural reaction for anyone in the same pose.  (Try it yourself.)  His genitalia are pushed to the side to accommodate his bent leg, and Prud’hon uses a masterful circular shadow thrown by the arm over the bent leg to create a rounded mass as it juts forward.  He also uses a mix of black and gray to delineate the length of the body as it recedes into the distance, and builds up very dark shadows on the arm and arm pits where the light cannot reach.
Though one might think the foot partially hidden by the rock is overlarge, it is important to remember that artists habitually draw feet too small, and that a normal-sized foot is usually as large as a normal sized head.
The truly magnificent achievement of this drawing is the head – for the head is not level, but both tilted and turned.  Prud’hon manages to capture the shift in perspective caused by the tilt and – perhaps my favorite detail of the drawing – the dark shadow cast by the head over the shoulder does not fully cover the barest section of shoulder blade that manages to capture light.
Most artists of Prud’hon’s heroic age made academic drawings during their initial artistic training, and then abandoned the practice.  They drew, of course, but mainly studies or cartoons as a preliminary step to developing a painting or fresco.  Not so Prud’hon, who continued to produce academic drawings throughout his life.  This made him something of an anomaly – these drawings were often time-consuming to create and had little value to collectors or buyers at the time – indeed, Prud’hon’s magnificent drawings were considered of negligible value once his work was sold at the time of his death.  Now, they are considered his greatest artistic legacy.
But he loved to draw.  There is a story told by Eugene Delacroix, who knew several of Prud’hon’s students, including Auguste-Joseph Carrier.  Delacroix wrote that:
In the last years of his life, Prud’hon could be seen spending all of his evenings in the studio of one of his students, Monsieur Trezel, drawing from the model as if he were a student himself.  He felt very comfortable there, with his pencil case in hand, in the company of these young people.  His kindness toward them was inexhaustible.  Many accomplished artists also had reason to praise him.  He often neglected his own work to help colleagues out with his advice and his able hand.
Tomorrow we will take a look at a Prud’hon painting.

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