In one of my recent posts I was talking about the place of value in painting. It brought to mind one of the greatest masters of value and tone, both in painting and drawing, whose chalk figure drawings are among my favorites by any artist.
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon was a French painter of the Romantic era, a time he shared with Gothe, Gainsborough and Mozart, among others. Napoleon commissioned him for portraits and allegory paintings. Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine was also his patron, as was his second wife, Marie-Louise, who employed Prud’hon to teach her drawing.
Prud’hon’s paintings are something of a bridge between the neo-classicism of Jacques-Louis David and his followers and Romanticism. He was particularly influenced by italian masters like Correggio.
As beautiful as Prud’hon’s portraits and allegorical paintings are, it’s his drawings that wow me. Prud’hon was a master draftsman and his academic figure studies are among the finest ever done. As someone fascinated by tone when I draw the figure, Prud’hon’s drawings are examples of the level of skill I would strive to acquire.
After achieving considerable success as a painter he began collaborating with Constance Mayer, who would finish many of their joint works, leaving Prud’hon free to pursue his academic figure drawings, something a master painter supposedly leaves behind on graduating from the Academy and uses only as studies for paintings. Not so for Prud’hon; drawing figures in chalk was apparently what he wanted to do with his life.
And what drawings they are! Usually starting with a toned paper as a middle ground, Prud’hon pulls the living form out of the surface with lights and darks that revel in the volume of the form, follow rippling shadows and highlights along the curves and turns of the body and create the figure’s shapes as revelations of value, often with little or no evidence of line.
Prud’hon’s figures can seem oddly mixed-gendered, his muscular male forms often oddly paired with heads and faces that seem feminine; and his women are often classical to the point of appearing ready to be made into statues; but the confidence and subtlety with which he draws them is never in doubt.
Prud’hon did not have an easy life, despite his success, and separated from his wife of 25 years, who was reportedly prone to drunkeness and violence, taking custody of his 5 children when she was committed to an asylum. I’m not sure of the nature of his relationship with his young collaborator, Constance Mayer, but Prud’hon’s beautiful portrait drawing of her certainly shows great affection, and he was devastated by her suicide in 1821, dying himself two years later.
I was fortunate to catch a show of Prud’hon’s work at the Met in New York a few years ago that included many of his drawings. The control and sensitivity with which he handles the chalk is just amazing. Some of his drawings are larger, but he usually worked at a size that most artists today would find comfortable for life drawing, roughly 18″ x 24″. The drawing shown here, which is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is about 13 x 24″ (35 x 61 cm). The Art Renewal Center has a great high-resolution image of this drawing.
There is a catalog from the exhibition at the Met, “Prud’hon, ou, Le rÃªve du bonheur, by Sylvain Laveissiére. The exhibit was organized by the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris and the catalog is in French, but the reproductions are obviously in the universal language of art.
There is another book on Prud’hon by the same author, simply titled Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, but it emphasizes his paintings over the drawings. Unfortunately the excellent Language of the Body by John Elderfield is out of print and expensive on the used book market, but look for it in libraries.
For a wonderful contrast in the study of master drawing techniques, compare the drawings of Prud’hon, master of value and tone, to the drawings of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, master of line.