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: Prud’hon’s L’Union do l’Amour et de l’Amitié: A New-Classical Allegory


Sam Sachs II



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon was born in the historic town of Cluny, April 4, 1758, the thirteenth child of a stone-mason and was, within a few years, an orphan. As is true of many great artists, much speculation exists as to the course of his early years; basically, however, the important facts are reasonably secure. Entrusted into the care of local Benedictine monks, he soon displayed an artistic gift and was sent by the Bishop of Macon to the Art Academy at Dijon to study in 1774. There he subsequently was apprenticed to François Devosge (1732-1811) and received his earliest formal training. He remained there six years and, in the process, married. This act has been termed from "unfortunate" to "disastrous" by various biographers and severely influenced his development.Prud'hon came under the patronage of the Baron de Joursanvault and with his encouragement and support moved to Paris in 1780. In his request for assistance Prud'hon cites his desire for wider opportunity to study the old masters and, further, wrote "...laissez-moi aller à Paris, Monsieur... je m'ennuie à Cluny."1Provincial and distrusting, however, Prud'hon found life in Paris difficult with recognition not forthcoming. His studies progressed slowly and works from this period may generally be classed as "influence of Boucher," an influence he would never fully relinquish. It was with disillusionment and, undoubtedly, the traditional longing for Italy that he returned to Dijon in 1783 to enter a contest organized by the State of Burgundy, the prize for which was a three-year stipend to study in Rome. Prud'hon won.From January, 1785, until late in 1788, Prud'hon worked in Italy. He lived in Rome and, with the exception of a copy he made of Pietro da Cortona's ceiling decoration in the Palazzo Barberini for his Burgundian patrons, he seems to have spent the majority of his time absorbing the works of Raphael, Correggio and, especially, Leonardo da Vinci. It was with these artists that he felt the greatest affinity even in a time when classical art was of the essence. While in Rome he met and established as acquaintance with Antonio Canova, the leading Neo-Classic sculptor, and in his later works, of which more will be said below, he exhibits a tangible debt to this artist; and it is equally significant that he arrived in Rome the very year that David produced his Oath of the Horatii. He was in daily contact with antiquity and could not help but be aware of the discoveries made at Pompeii and Herculaneum, yet he still managed to remain aloof from total immersion in the classical revival in the arts which engulfed so many of his contemporaries.Prud'hon returned to his family and a politically unstable Paris in November, 1789. and set to work on those commissions which he, impoverished and without connections, could manage. He was frequently reduced to accepting "commercial" assignments. He first entered the Salon of 1791 and subsequently that of 1793, but without recognizable popular acclaim. Throughout he was an active supporter of the revolution and a speaker, with David, on several occasions;2 he prudently, however, left Paris in 1794 to move to Rigny in Franche-Compte. There he found a far greater abundance of commissions, working, among others, for the editor Firmin-Didot, and a M. Frochot. This latter, subsequently Prefet de la Seine, arranged the commission for Prud'hon's La Justice et La Vengeance divine poursuivant le crime which, following the Salon of 1808, won for the artist the Cross of the Legion of Honor awarded by Napoleon.Back in Paris by late 1796 Prud'hon found his lot much improved and set up a studio. His work divided itself into two major categories: Portraiture and Allegory. Allegorical painting was decidedly his forte and that with which he is most associated today. It was popular, both with the public and the government, and was an area to which Prud'hon added his own personal talents: talents of vigor and vivacity added to that which tends to be static and dry and in addition special elements of melancholy and subdued grace which flavor all his major works.In 1805 Prud'hon met and took into his studio Mlle. Constance Mayer, a former pupil of the recently deceased Greuze. She proved to be not only artistically sympathetic (many of her paintings have subsequently been confused with Prud'hon's own) but psychologically compatible as well, and as the artist's mistress provided an urgently needed companionship not to be found with Prud'hon's difficult and quarrelsome wife. She lived with Prud'hon through the years of his greatest success; years in which the Empress Josephine became his patroness and he, later, became drawing master to the Empress Marie-Louise; years in which Prud'hon's lyricism and stature grew side by side and he permanently established his reputation. It seems evident that Mlle. Mayer fulfilled the artist's life and to such an extent that when she, for uncertain reasons, committed suicide in May of 1821, Prud'hon's despondency swiftly precipitated his own death less than two years later.Neo-Classicism reigned as a style roughly from 1760 to 1830, a period almost exactly parallel to Prud'hon's life. It revered the antique, notably ancient Greece and Rome and sought, in a reaction to the excesses of Baroque and Rococo art, to recapture the stoic style of an age gone by. The Revolutionary spirit was ideally wedded to the inherent idealism of classicistic art and thus the age encouraged the production of what was frequently a not-so-well concealed self-glorification. Its prime exponent was Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) whose severe, rhetorical paintings extolled those virtues so dear to Republican France. Symbolism combined with naturalistic form was thought thus to be both laudable and edifying. It was in this milieu that Prud'hon approached his work, and while he was a contemporary of the prime Classicists, he cannot be classed among them. It is today agreed that his contribution was less a commitment to his own time than a bridge forming an important link between the Baroque and the forthcoming Romantic period.In 1793 he entered five works in the Paris Salon, of which two were drawings. Of the three paintings one was entitled L'Union de l'Amour et de l'Amitié,3 and has recently been acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (frontispiece).The History of this painting is much documented and highly interesting. It was Prud'hon's first major commission after his return from Rome, being ordered by M. Saint-Marc Didot, the brother of the editor and an important collector. It was thus of the greatest importance to the artist. It was exhibited in the Salon of 1793 as number 679 of the supplement and then entered M. Didot's collection where it presumably remained until his death. It passed then to his widow who remarried, becoming Madame Abel Vautrier, and she in turn willed it to her heirs. They, however, decided not to keep the art collection and in December, 1863, at auction in the Hotel des Commissaires-Priseurs, the painting passed into the hands of the Duc de Mornay for 7,000 francs. He owned it for only two years. In 1865 another auction was held and, under the title l'Amour et Psyché, it was purchased by Baron Seilliére for 9,500 francs.Salomon Albert de Rothschild (1844-1911) is the next recorded owner, there possibly having been intermediate collectors whose identities have been lost. It remained in the Rothschild family, passing to the last head of the Austrian House of Rothschild, Baron Louis de Rothschild (1882-1955), who sold it to Wildenstein and Company from whom it was purchased by the Institute.L'Union de l'Amour et de l'Amitié figures prominently in the significant literature on Prud'hon, but the references have become confused due to the existence of one or more questionable versions of our painting and the compounding errors by scholars who had not actually seen the objects which they described. While this author admittedly also suffers from an inability to locate the alternate canvases, enough facts seem evident to warrant some clarification.There is no argument concerning the fact that the Minneapolis painting is identical to the one exhibited in the 1793 Paris Salon. It is described there as, "679. L'Union de l'Amour & de l'Amitié./ Tableau de 4 pieds 6 po. de h. sur 3 pieds/ 6 po. de larg. Par Prud'hon."4 But here the agreement ends. The painting received special notice in the catalogue of the sale of Madame Vautrier in 1863.5 Horsin Deon writes therein,
M. Didot was a devoted lover of the arts and without any prejudice. He liked all schools of art. His Cabinet, still fresh in one's memory, included a number of masterpieces from all types of art. A friend of Prud'hon, he commissioned the artist several times, and when this eminent artist died unexpectedly, two works commissioned by M. Didot still remained unfinished by the artist. One of them was L'Amour et Psyché; it is that work of art which appears in our catalogue.6
This leaves only room for doubt and discussion as to the degree of incompletion. It would seem likely that Prud'hon, then young and ambitious, would not allow a seriously unfinished work to appear in the Salon and that areas not fully finished would only have been peripheral ones. It has been suggested that the landscape background was such an area and more is said of this below. However, if indeed anyone did work on any part of the painting after 1793, it almost certainly would have had to have been Mlle. Mayer or the master himself, for the style is thoroughly consistent throughout. By 1863, the date of the first mention of the "unfinished" state, Prud'hon and Constance Mayer had been dead for forty and forty-two years respectively, and it is highly unlikely that anyone was competent to reproduce Prud'hon's style at that time. Is it then possible that the picture as we see it today is as it was seen by M. Deon and thought to be unfinished? Condition is frequently a serious problem in Prud'hon's paintings. It is true that some of his canvases were left unfinished and remain so to this day. A far more serious hazard resulted, however, from Prud'hon's frequent use of a substance called bitumen in his pigments. This brownish medium has the effect of rapidly drying paints and allows an artist to work more quickly than normal. It is not chemically stable, however, and in less than a decade begins to blacken and eventually deteriorates almost completely. Many of Prud'hon's works have been seriously, or totally, disfigured in this fashion. Fortunately the Minneapolis picture shows no signs of its use and, with the exception of a heavy crackle pattern which is normal for this artist, is in an extraordinarily fine state of preservation.Scientific examination of the painting reveals only one area of any compositional change (fig. 2). This is in the legs of Love where the stance has been altered from the drawing (which shows from under the paint surface as a white silhouette). The drawing appears to have been closer to the stance and weight distribution as shown in figure 1 while the final, painted version corresponds to that of figure 4, Both, however, are Prud'hon's drawings, and it would have been completely proper for him to have changed the composition of the painting itself.Other problems regarding the historical references are, fortunately, far more simple to resolve. The revolve around the fact that all but one of the cataloguers of Prud'hon describe this painting in an manner diverging from observed fact. Edmond de Goncourt7 lists our painting as number 56 of his catalogue. The measurements listed correspond to our painting as does the history. Charles Clément, however, describes the picture as we know it, only with two putti in the background who wrestle with each other.8 Although the history given is the same as the Minneapolis picture, it is evident that an alternate version of the painting had come into existence. This is made clear when Jean Guiffrey repeats the error and once again confuses the version with two putti for the one with only one.9 He, however, lists the measurements of the second version which differ significantly from ours.The materials directly related to the development of L'Union de l'Amour et de l'Amitié are of interest, especially in light of the fact that the drawing (fig. 1), shown by Prud'hon at the Salon of 1791 as number 540, "Un dessin à la pierre noire représentant un jeune homme appuyé sur le dieu Termes [sic],"10 in fact became a preliminary study for the figure that would ultimately be Love. More stocky to be sure, the pose of this figure is virtually identical to the final version, and he not only carries the torch but wears a garland of flowers around his head as well. It is also interesting to note the faint suggestion of wings which has been smudged into the background. It is tempting to speculate that these wings were later alterations by Prud'hon, made after 1791, in the course of plotting his design; they have, perhaps, helped to bring about the rather more grand present-day title of Le Génie de la Liberté et la Sagesse.A drawing of a male head in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts is a further refinement of the head of Love (fig. 3). The visage has taken on an intense, amorous glance and the swirling top-knot has been removed. This Leonardesque image is employed in the study for the whole composition in Chantilly (fig. 4) which, with only slight revisions, contains all the essential elements of our picture: the single putto who glances upwards, the wings of Love, the trees in the background, and the faint suggestions of the horizon line which will form the landscape. The only significant changes will appear in the addition of the feet of Friendship.The style of the 1791 Salon drawing differs markedly from the other two sketches and suggests an earlier phase of Prud'hon's development. It is tighter and more controlled in its draughtsmanship and makes far less use of light for modeling. This latter characteristic, evident in the two other studies, is a quality developed by Prud'hon after his return to Paris and was to become one of the elements of his style which impresses later artists such as Corot. It is possible, therefore, and in some ways probable, that it was done during the artist's stay in Rome. This possibility is based not only on stylistic grounds but also on the fact that the composition is remarkably close to a piece of classical sculpture which Prud'hon surely could have known as a student in Italy.The Praxitellian Apollo Sauroktonos (fig. 5), existed in several Roman copies in the 18th century including one now in the Vatican, the illustrated version having been in the Borghese collection. That Prud'hon, like Canova and other classically inclined artists, would have sought out such works is unquestionable. The relation between Prud'hon's drawing and the reversed image of the sculpture is so visually convincing as to require no further documentation. Other notable works directly or indirectly related to our painting are, for the figure of Love, the Palatine Eros11 and Canova's own Lubomirsky Amorino of 1787 (fig. 6), and, for Firendship, numerous standing Aphrodites of which the familiar type is the Capuan Venus (fig. 7). The pose of Firendship may be derived from a seated muse, such as the Thalia, then and now visible at the Vatican, or one of the many seated allegorical figures painted by Raphael, viz., those from the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura. This latter suggestion takes on added significance if one agrees, as has recently been noted,12 that this is an allegory not only of Love and Friendship but of sculpture and painting. The tonalities of Love are cold and the skin takes on a marble hue; Friendship, however, is warm in color and painterly in its handling.The figures then may be seen as a product of Prud'hon's devotion to and interest in both antique sculpture and Renaissance painting. The other portion of the picture however, the landscape, also deserves brief discussion. In a consideration of the alleged unfinished condition of this work it has been stated that, "...whoever was responsible for bringing the work to its present state... one would like to know to what extent the landscape background was [Prud'hon's] own idea."13 It is now suggested here that it was wholly possible not only for it to have been entirely Prud'hon's idea but by his own hand as well.It is notable that Prud'hon's style and taste are extremely close to Canova's sculpture and that Canova's paintings, of the same period, look like provincial Prud'hon's. All of the Frenchman is there: similar sources, the same taste and the same results, even similar landscape, as in Canova's Cephalus and Procris (Possagno, c. 1792). This, of course, was a common property of painting in Rome from the late 1770s, and Prud'hon would surely have been familiar with it. It was a landscape informed by a Neo-Classic but highly Romantic poetry. The landscape used by Prud'hon in the Minneapolis painting is neither Rococo nor the dry, flat Poussinism of David. It is a development of the late style of Raphael Mengs whose successors, such as Maron and Cavallucci, had taken an atmospheric and careful naturalism from the celebrated German artist and enhanced its poetic qualities in a fully pre-Romantic manner. A number of young French painters in Rome, none more obviously than Prud'hon, attempted as much by the first years of the 1790s.With Regnault and Gérard the manner became familiar as, of course, with Girodet, whose notorious Endymion was first exhibited with our picture in the Salon of 1793. It does not, therefore, follow that the landscape treatment of the Union of Love and Friendship is necessarily of either later date or of foreign completion. It bears a marked similarity, in fact, to that in Prud'hon's Portrait of Charles-Louis Cadet (fig. 8) of 1791, now in the Musée Jacquemart-André. Rather it can be suggested that not only was Prud'hon capable of completing this portion of the painting but that he was unlikely to have left such a strategic area in abeyance in a work that was to be exhibited in a Salon so important to him personally.Thus Minneapolis' Prud'hon may be accepted as a work not only of prime significance within the history of French painting but within the artist's own oeuvre as well. It is a Romantic allegory which serves to link philosophical, 18th-century Neo-Classicism with the Romantic art of Delacroix and Géricault. Further, it is an allegory which proves as Delacroix himself wrote, "Le véritable génie de Prud'hon, son domaine, son empire, c'est l'allégorie."14Endnotes
  1. Charles Clément, Prud'hon (Paris: Didier et Cie, 1872), pp. 40-41.
  2. Thieme-Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler, XXVII (Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 1933), p. 432.
  3. L'Union de l'Amour et de l'Amitié. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2" x 44 1/2", The William Hood Dunwoody Fund and The John R. Van Derail Fund, 64.50.
  4. Description des outrages e painter ...exposés à Sallon [sic] du Louvre ...(Paris, 1793).
  5. Catalogue de la Collection de... Mme. Abel Vaetrier, Paris, Hotel des Commissaires-Priseurs, December 9-10, 1863.
  6. Translation courtesy of Mrs. D. T. Bergen.
  7. Edmond de Goncourt, Catalogue Raisonné de l'Oeuvre... de P. P. Prud'hon (Paris: Rapilly, 1876).
  8. Charles Clément, op. cit., p. 208.
  9. Jean Guiffrey, L'Oeuvre de P. P. Prud'hon in Archives de l'Art Français No. 27 (Paris, 1924).
  10. Charles Clément, op. cit., p. 209, n. 1.
  11. Examples in the Louvre and Naples.
  12. Anita Brookner, "Prud'hon's The Union of Love and Friendship," Art News, November, 1965, p. 38.
  13. Anita Brookner, Ibid., p. 70.
  14. Eugène Delacroix, Oeuvres Littéraires, Vol. II (Paris: G. Cres et Cie, 1923), P. 144.
Referenced Works of ArtFrontispiece. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
French, 1758-1823
The Union of Love and Friendship, c. 1793
Oil on canvas, 57 1/2" x 44 1/2"
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund and The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 64.50.
  1. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
    Le Génie de la Liberté et la Sagesse
    Crayon and pencil heightened with white chalk, 12 13/16" x 6 7/8"
    Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
    Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop.
  2. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
    French, 1758-1823
    The Union of Love and Friendship
    Infra-red photograph.
  3. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
    Male Head: Drawing for Love
    Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris.
  4. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
    Drawing for The Union of Love and Friendship
    Crayon and pencil
    Musée Condé, Chantilly. Photo Giraudon.
  5. The Apollo Sauroktonos
    Roman copy of a Greek original
    Louvre, Paris.
    (Negative reversed).
  6. Antonio Canova
    Italian, 1757-1822
    Gipsoteca, Possagno.
  7. Capuan Venus
    Roman copy of a 4th-century original
    National Museum, Naples,
  8. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
    Portrait of Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt
    Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.
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Source: Samuel Sachs II, "Prud'hon's L'Union do l'Amour et de l'Amitié: A New-Classical Allegory," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 54 (1965): 4-18.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009