Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Prud’hon’s Portrait of Constance Mayer

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758--1823) was a French painter and one of the most superlative draughtsmen of his time.  He was born in Cluny, Saone-et-Loire, and was trained in France and Italy.  He worked primarily in Paris and was a favorite of Napoleon.
There has been much debate over whether to characterize Prud’hon as a Classicist or Romantic artist, and there is no better illustration of this conundrum than this stunning drawing of Constance Mayer, rendered in black and white chalk on blue paper.  It was drawn sometime around 1805 and by any yardstick is a remarkable drawing.
Before lingering on this lovely image, let’s spend a moment on the story of Prud’hon and Mayer, one of the most tragic and affecting in the history of art.  Mayer was born in 1775 and was an artist herself, taught by J.B. Greuze, among others.  She was a pupil and later lover of Prud’hon, raising his children for him instead of his invalid wife.  They also collaborated on several paintings and the historical record is sometimes cloudy on what components were from Prud’hon, and which were courtesy of Mayer. 
On her deathbed in 1821, Madame Prud’hon requested that he never remarry, and he promised her, “no, never.”  Upon hearing this, Mayer bade farewell to her own pupils and cut her throat with Prud’hon’s razor.  Prud’hon was not able to save her life and his own health declined after the incident.  He died in 1823, and Prud’hon and Mayer were buried in the same grave in Père Lachaise, Paris.
What a magnificent picture.  Mayer seems to have turned away from her work to give Prud’hon a smile.  The light falls from above, creating dark shadows on her face and around her eyes, which are vibrantly alive.  There are times when the moment seems too intimate, and that we are mere intruders.
Note not only Mayer’s curls, but the shadows they throw on her forehead and the hollows of her eyes.  Not only that, but through some alchemy of chalk and paper, Prud’hon manages to convey a sense of dew upon his beloved’s brow.  The artist uses white judiciously – note how it highlights the moist, and most reflective sections, of her face but not her teeth, which would render Mayer little better than an advertisement.  He also uses his paper to create a satisfactory mid-tone, allowing him to gradually build shadows under the curve of her neck, and create a deep, velvety black for the collar of her jacket. 
The ribbon in her hair is clearly, but not fussily, delineated, and the white of her blouse (or, perhaps, her artist’s apron) creates a non-distracting focus.
This portrait so clearly illustrates the dilemma of whether Prud’hon was a Classicist or Romantic simply because it accomplishes both goals so splendidly.  The portrait has a mastery of line, command of form and finish that clearly aligns Prud’hon with the polished Classicists; however, the homey, almost spontaneous nature of the pose and costume clearly falls in the province of the Romantics.  For this correspondent, I contend that Prud’hon was an arch-Classicist – Romantics (and later Impressionists) largely gave up on drawing, and this picture is literally a glowing example of drawing virtuosity. 
This portrait was probably drawn during the first year of their liaison, so Mayer is around 30 years old here.  Mayer herself obviously loved it, for she painted a miniature from this drawing for her father.  The original always hung near Prud’hon’s easel.
After Mayer’s suicide, he gave the drawing to another of his pupils, August-Joseph Carrier.  He could not look at it any longer, and told Carrier “hide it well, my friend, I am not strong enough to bear its sight anymore.”
It is impossible to look at the smiling Mayer, so young, so vibrant, and so pleasantly sensual, and not think of the horrible end that awaits her.  Our historical hindsight adds to the profound pathos already evident in the picture for, as with many Classicists, Prud’hon captures the pathos of the human condition simply by expertly recording it.
More on Prud’hon and Constance tomorrow!

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