Pierre-Paul Prud’hon – the Terrible Beauty

by | Exhibition

As the Dulwich Picture Gallery is always keen to exhibit great masters that are not quite so well known today, we are fortunate that they are presenting this small but stunning exhibition on Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823). Part of the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, this is also the first UK exhibition devoted to an artist who, through his distinctive and unconventional vision, emerged as one of the most exceptional talents working in post-Revolutionary Paris.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon Old Age GDC interiors Journal

Old Age, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon ©cliché Bernardot- Musée Baron Martin-France

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon: Napoleon’s Draughtsman

Born the tenth son of a stonecutter in Burgundy, Pierre Prudon later altered his name to Pierre-Paul Prud’hon as a tribute to Peter Paul Rubens and also – like his hero – to evoke nobility. Although he started to study painting from the age of 16, first in Dijon and then in Paris, it was a four year trip to Rome some ten years later that really led to the distinctive development of his style. Here he busily sketched endless classical statues, and became acquainted with Canova and his hugely fashionable Neo-Classical sculptures. It was also in Rome that Prud’hon absorbed the gentle sensuality of Correggio as well as the subtle shading techniques of Leonardo da Vinci.

The young Prud’hon was a supporter of the Revolution but his enthusiasm for Robespierre led to exile from Paris, and he initially survived by painting some exceptional portraits and drawing for engravers. He was however soon brought to the attention of Napoleon, by whom he was occasionally to be employed as a court portraitist, history painter and decorator.


Many of Prud’hon’s famous large compositions are now at the Louvre Museum. This intimate and revealing selection of 13 works on paper at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is largely from the small Baron Martin Museum in eastern France, and clearly demonstrate Prud’hon as one of France’s greatest draughtsmen.

Seated Male Nude, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon ©cliché Bernardot- Musée Baron Martin-France

Study for a Portrait of Joséphine Bonaparte by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

Study for a Portrait of Joséphine Bonaparte, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon ©cliché Bernardot-Musée Baron Martin-France

Among these works are exquisite drawings of the Empress Josephine that are both unexpectedly informal and romantic at the same time. There was clearly a mutual admiration as the Empress sat for Prud’hon 15 times at her home outside Paris, and even described his portrait of her – now in the Louvre – as:

 “more the work of a friend than a painter

Paris Prince of Troy by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

Paris, Prince of Troy, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon ©cliché Bernardot- Musée Baron Martin-France

The particular focus of this display however is on the artist’s extraordinary life studies in white and black chalk. On the face of it there’s nothing unusual about an artist engaged in life studies. But while most artists would draw from models only at the outset of their careers as part of their training, Prud’hon carried on drawing in this way throughout his life. Some of them were preparatory studies for interior decoration schemes, or for the large allegorical works for which he is best known. These works were not commissioned and were never meant to be seen by anyone else, and for this reason are deeply revealing of the artist’s distinctive techniques and style.

Looking at these beautiful works, one cannot – for example – but marvel at Prud’hon’s subtlety of light and shade. These life drawings appear magically luminous and almost rear lit, an unexpected quality that beguilingly brings these ethereal works to life. Unfinished drawings curiously appear to reveal his almost anatomical construction of the human form from its skeletal structure.

Male Nude by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

Male Nude, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon ©cliché Bernardot- Musée Baron Martin-France

Also revealing is Prud’hon’s mastery of form and expression, which is perhaps the strongest contrast between his work and that of the Neo-Classicists of his day including David. Far from the marble-cold formality of the contemporary Neo-Classical style, in Prud’hon’s work there is such soul, such a melancholic and heart-rending romantic tension, that one can only conclude that Prud’hon was a father to the incipient Romantic Movement. And at the very least he was also a bridge between Neo-Classism and Romanticism. He was certainly perceived as such by Delacroix and others for whom he later became the poster boy.

Prud’hon’s curious fusion of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism is particularly evident in the way that the idealised statue poses of the models and stone-cold glow of their flesh is contrasted with the characterful humanity of their expressions. A particularly striking example is the mesmerisingly beautiful female nude that was loaned by the British Museum – the only drawing by Prud’hon in a British national collection.

Intended as a study for the allegorical themes in the decoration of the Hotel de Ville, the figure is reminiscent of his friend Canova’s Venus. But Prud’hon’s Neo-Classical figure has dropped her peplos garment and gently moved out of pose. Characteristically her expression is of a fragile naturalism, without a trace of the contemporary austerity that one might expect to find.

Standing Female Nude, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon ©British Museum

It was this distinctive injection of lyricism and humanity into his work that helped Prud’hon find favour with the Imperial court. It was also this quality that inspired many artists and art lovers in the later 19th century. Perhaps his were the first tentative steps leading to the Romantic and even Modern era. And perhaps therefore these subtle and sensitive works – that teeter on the edge of sentimentality – constitute the Terrible Beauty that helped open the sluice gates to the subconscious.


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