Pierre-Paul Prud'hon was born in 1758 in the Burgundian town of Cluny, the son of a stonemason. Both parents died when he was very young. A Benedictine of the abbey of Cluny, Father Besson, befriended the boy and saw to his education. Supported by a recommendation from the bishop of Micon, Prud'hon was admitted to the provincial Academy of Dijon, then directed by François Desvoges, a competent painter. In 1778 he returned to Cluny to marry Jeanne Paugnet, the daughter of a notary, who was pregnant by him. The match was a miserably unhappy one from the start. Eager to escape, he obtained funds from a local amateur, Baron Joursanvault, that enabled him to continue his studies in Paris under the tutelage of Jean-Baptiste Pierre (1713-1780, First Painter to the king, who introduced him to a classicizing late rococo much influenced by Correggio. The Rome Prize of the Burgundian Academy, won in 1784, enabled Prud'hon to spend four years in Italy, where he developed a liking for the work of Leonardo. In his classical studies he followed his preference for sensuous Hellenic grace, a taste that separated him from his more rigorously Roman or Spartan contemporaries. He returned to Paris in 1789 and there lived through the Revolution in poverty, earning a scant living with portraits and graphic work. Though a Jacobin and member of the revolutionary Commune des Arts, he sought no political office.
To the Salon of 1793, at the beginning of the Terror, Prud'hon submitted erotic subjects, graceful allegories on the pleasures or torments of love, romantic in feeling and curiously unrevealing of the grimness of their time (The Union of Love and Friendship, 1793, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts). After Robespierre's fall (1794), he sheltered in the rustic security of a village in Franche-Comté, where he spent two years painting portraits (Madame Anthony and Her Two Children, 1796, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) and designing illustrations for the publisher Didot. After the establishment of the Directory (1795), he returned to Paris, coolly received by Jacques-Louis David and his followers. His design for a ceiling intended for the Louvre, Wisdom and Truth, Descending to Earth, Dispel the Darkness That Covers It (1799), hinting at peace and renewal after revolutionary strife, won him the commission and the privilege of lodgings at the Louvre. Though he was held in low esteem by David's faction, Prud'hon from this time on had to be reckoned with as a history painter. His aptitude for large-scale decorative work brought him the commission of a suite of allegorical wall paintings for the Hôtel de Lanois (1796-1799), the residence of one of the newly enriched financiers who set the tone of Directory society. Through his friendship with Nicolas Frochot, the powerful prefect of the department of the Seine, he received important commissions and was brought into the orbit of Bonaparte.
In 1803 he separated from his mentally ill wife. Shortly thereafter a young painter, Constance Mayer (1775-1821), came into his life, at first as a pupil, then as his collaborator and intimate companion. Prud'hon by this time was receiving generous state commissions. After the establishment of the empire in 1804 he was in demand as portraitist for the imperial family (Portrait of the Empress Josephine, 1805, Louvre). He designed the decor of court celebrations, as David had once overseen the pageants of the Revolution, and was charged with the artistic detail of festivities and ceremonies, notably those accompanying Napoleon's second marriage, in 1810, to Marie Louise of Austria. At the request of Frochot he painted Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1808, Louvre) for the courtroom of the Palace of Justice. The picture created a strong impression by its powerful depiction of Crime as a fugitive assassin when exhibited at the Salon of 1808, which also included a painting in Prud'hon's more familiar, sensuously ingratiating manner, Psyche Carried of by Zephyr (1808, Louvre).
The fall of the empire, regretted by Prud'hon, did not impair his career, but his work now began to show signs of fatigue. In 1816, the year of David's exile, he was admitted to the Institute. His very existence was shattered in 1821 when Constance Mayer, who had been suffering from spells of depression, committed suicide in his apartment at the Sorbonne. Prud'hon survived this catastrophe by little more than a year, at work on a painting of Christ Expiring on the Cross (1821, Louvre), unfinished at his death, that he had intended as a monument to his grief. He left no pupils. Many of his paintings have suffered serious damage from his excessive use of bituminous paints. He is now most admired for his drawings, studies of the nude in black and white chalk on tinted paper, that rank, together with Ingres' very different drawings, among the high achievements of French classicism. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Clément, Charles. Prud'hon, sa vie, ses oeuvres et sa correspondance. Paris, 1872.
Goncourt, Edmond de. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre de P.-P. Prud'hon. Paris, 1876.
de Goncourt, Edmond, and Jules de Goncourt. L'Art du dix-huitième siècle. 2 vols. Paris, 1974: 2:387-485.
Guiffrey, Jean. P.P. Prud'hon, peintures, pastels et dessins. Paris, 1924.
Eitner, Lorenz. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 324-325.