Two hundred years ago, the French artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823) died in Paris. He’s another of that legion who were rated as masters in their day, but have since been largely forgotten.
Unusually, he was born and trained in the provinces rather than the city of Paris, but went to Italy when in his late twenties to complete his training there. By around 1790, he was making his name among the wealthy, at first in decorative painting.
The earliest of his surviving paintings that I’ve been able to find is The Cruel One Laughs at the Tears He Causes from 1794. This shows Cupid leaning on his bow, representing erotic desire, as true love sleeps, unrequited.
In his painting of Psyche Lifted Up by Zephyrs from about 1800, the sleeping Psyche is being carried by a young winged Zephyr. Her golden robes are not only loose to the point of exposing her whole body, but billow with the Zephyr’s breeze.
At some time between about 1798 and 1801, he painted four panels presumably intended to be integrated into a decorative plan. The Arts, Wealth, Pleasure and Philosophy is perhaps the perfect combination of themes for the Emperor’s court.
I believe that Prud’hon’s Diana Begs Jupiter not to Subject her to the Laws of Marriage, from 1803, shows the virgin goddess of hunting pleading with her father Jupiter that she be allowed to remain chaste and not required to marry. There is a strange twist to this, in that Diana was also considered the protector of childbirth, which seems a little unusual for a virgin.
Prud’hon probably painted Innocence Choosing Between Love and Riches the following year. It offers a contemporary revision to the more traditional choice between love sacred and profane. At the left is a rather sketchy Cupid, as a winged Innocence is clearly struggling to make his choice.
At about this time, Prud’hon’s paintings became appreciated by Napoleon’s court, and the Emperor himself. He was thus commissioned to paint the Empress Joséphine.
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, as she was before marrying the Emperor in late 1804, must have been forty-one or forty-two years old at the time of Prud’hon’s commission, and a widow with two children. Most unconventionally, it must have been agreed that she wouldn’t be portrayed in her official role of Empress.
Prud’hon’s black chalk Study for a Portrait of Empress Joséphine, from 1805, perhaps shows the original concept of the Empress in her role as patron of the arts, complete with a lyre, reclining on the coast, against a background of trees.
His finished painting of The Empress Joséphine (c 1805) dispenses with the lyre and seats her on a stone bench in woodland, looking pensive if not slightly wistful.
Neither the Emperor nor Empress were faithful during their marriage, but she didn’t produce the heir that Napoleon wanted. In 1809, he informed her that he had to find a wife who could provide an heir, and they divorced the following January. Prud’hon went on to paint her successor Marie-Louise of Austria too.