Friday, May 18, 2012

Tender agony: the tragic fate of Pierre-Paul Prud'hon and Constance Mayer

In his day, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823) was one of the most famous and successful artists in France. His art is poised between the strict neo-classicism of David and Ingres and the lush romanticism of Delacroix and Géricault. While the others were a generation younger, David (1748-1825) and Prud'hon were almost exact contemporaries and therefore rivals. The older David despised the softness and sentimentality of Prud'hon's work, but it was precisely these qualities that appealed to the ladies of Napoleon's court (including both of his Empresses, Josephine and Marie-Louise). Prud'hon's openness to emotional content also pleased Delacroix and Géricault, who both admired and were influenced by his art. Prud'hon came from humble origins. He was born plain Pierre Prudon in Cluny in Burgundy, the thirteenth child of a stonecutter. The Pierre-Paul part of his working name was intended to suggest artistic kinship with Peter Paul Rubens; the fancified surname gives the vague suggestion of a landed or noble background.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, L'enfant au chien
Lithograph, 1822

Prud'hon hardly qualifies as a prolific printmaker. He made two etchings, and three authenticated and two attributed lithographs, and that seems to be it. Of the three undoubted original lithographs, I have one, a work of great style and authority. Entitled L'enfant au chien, it depicts the son of Maréchal Gouvion Saint-Cyr, and relates to a painting of the same subject exhibited at the Salon de Paris in 1822. The lithographic stones for this and another lithograph entitled La lecture were acquired in 1864 by M. Galichon for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, which issued new editions (although possibly the works were never formally editioned prior to this). La lecture was included in the Gazette in 1870; although L'enfant au chien bears a credit to the Gazette as well as to the printer Bertauts, I can't find any record of it actually appearing in the revue. It is not listed in Pierre Sanchez and Xavier Seydoux's thorough and scrupulous catalogue, Les Estampes de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts. If anyone has access to the Gazette for 1869 and 1870, I would be grateful for any enlightenment as to whether L'enfant au chien is in there or not.

Alfred Taiée, Tombeau de Mlle C. Mayer et de Prud'hon
Etching, 1879

The date of 1822 is a notable one, because it means this tender study of a boy and his dog was executed while Prud'hon himself was suffering intolerable agony. Prud'hon had married at the age of 19. The marriage was unhappy, although the couple had six children, and his wife was eventually admitted to an insane asylum. From 1803, Prud'hon's intimate partner in both life and art was his ex-pupil Constance Mayer. There's a good post on their relationship here, at The Jade Sphinx. Supposedly, on her deathbed, Mme Prud'hon begged him never to re-marry, and he vowed that he would not. When Constance Mayer heard the news, she went to Prud'hon's studio, picked up his cutthroat razor, and slit her throat. Prud'hon was devastated by Mayer's death, sank into depression, and died himself in 1823. The lovers were buried in the same tomb in Père Lachaise; I have an etching of this by Alfred Taiée.

Engraving by an unknown hand after a drawing by
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon of Constance Mayer, c.1805

The remaining images in this post are etchings after Prud'hon, Mayer, or Prud'hon and Mayer combined. One of the puzzles with Prud'hon is exactly where his work stops and Constance Mayer's starts. He seems to have enjoyed drawing more than painting, and left a good deal of the execution of his large allegorical paintings to her; so much so that some authorities now credit the works to both artists. Constance Mayer was also an artist in her own right, with her own studio and her own pupils, and her work under her own name is certainly very similar to that of Prud'hon.

Léopold Flameng (1831-1911), etching after
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Vénus au bain, ou L'innocence

Adolphe Lalauze (1838-1906), etching after
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon and Constance Mayer, L'innocence préfère l'amour à la richesse

William Barbotin (1861-1931), etching after
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, L'amour et l'innocence

Arthur Mayeur (1871-1919), etching after
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Nymphe et amours

Prud'hon began to study drawing at the age of 16, at the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Dijon under François Devosge. In 1780 he entered the Royal Academy, then based in the Louvre. Two years after that, he won the a Burgundian three year scholarship to live and study in Rome. The years he then spent in Italy were crucial to his artistic development. According to the J. Paul Getty Museum biography, "his experience in Italy from 1784 to 1787, when he absorbed the softness and sensuality of Correggio's works and Leonardo da Vinci's sfumato, gave his art its distinctive style." His mastery of tonal effects in academic figure drawing has never been equalled.

Achille Gilbert (1828-1899), etching after
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Portrait de Millevoye

Jules G. Romain, etching after
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Portrait de Mlle Pierre de Vellefrey

There's a good essay on Prud'hon by Fred Stern here, relating to the Prud'hon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 1998.

Eugène Gaujean (1850-1900), etching after
Constance Mayer, Le rêve de bonheur

Constance Mayer (full name, Marie-Françoise-Constance Mayer La Martinière) was born in Paris in 1775, seventeen years Prud'hon's junior. Like him, she had a meteoric rise in the art world, first exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1796. She studied under Joseph-Benoît Suvée and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and admired Prud'hon's artistic adversary Jacques-Louis David. Why in 1803 she would need to enrol as a pupil with Prud'hon is not immediately apparent, and it seems likely that the status of élève was a convenient mask for their affair, rather than a full master-pupil relationship. It was Constance who suffered from this subterfuge, because it meant that she was always viewed in the shadow of the master. No one knows how many drawings and paintings now attributed to Prud'hon are actually the work of Constance Mayer. Her 1805 painting Vénus et l’Amour endormis caressés et réveillés par les Zéphirs, ou Le sommeil de Vénus, for instance, initially bought by the Empress Josephine, when it passed into the collection of Sir William Wallace, had Mayer's signature removed and replaced by that of Prud'hon. Apart from anything else, a nude by a female artist was not to be thought of. The painting remains in the Wallace Collection, now reattributed to Mayer, though their description still maintains that Prud'hon provided the "initial ideas": i.e. he did the preparatory drawings and Mayer merely painted his design.

Augustin Mongin (1843-1911), etching after
Constance Mayer, Portrait de Mlle Sophie Lordon

Constance Mayer killed herself in Prud'hon's Paris studio on 26 May 1821. He withered without her, and died of consumption on 16 February 1823.


Nancy Patton Wilson said...

What a fascinating and tragic story!

Jane Librizzi said...

So many female artists have been mistaken in thinking that a fellow artist would be a kindred spirit. Add to that the injustice of having their own works overshadowed and obscured because of the association. To name just one: Gwen John and Auguste Rodin.
The child and the dog is very nice image. The fleeting actions captured in a painstaking medium - is that why you gave it pride of place?

Neil said...

Thanks, Nancy. As Jane comments, there are a lot of these star-crossed relationships between older male artists and younger female ones. Rodin and Camille Claudel is probably even sadder than Rodin and John.

Neil said...

Jane, the child and dog lithograph is the spur to this post, as I acquired it fairly recently. I was excited to have an original lithograph by Prud'hon, and wanted to research the print. I think this may be the last print Prud'hon made; he seems to have picked up the lithographic technique very quickly.

Fishwhacker said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I recently discovered a painting which may very well be an unknown oil by Prud'hon, it is signed and dated 1797 and housed in an original 18th century giltwood frame. I am currently in the process of having it authenticated, but would be more than happy to share a photo for you to look at if so desired.

Neil said...

Hope it turns out to be genuine, Fishwhacker.

Unknown said...

Gazette Beaux arts December 1869

Les FILS DE GOUVION SAINT-CYR, Lithographie tiree de la Pierre Originale de Prud'hon. Gette Lithographie trouvera sa place dans le tome III

Its there!!!!
Rafael Alberti

Neil said...

Many thanks, Rafael, that's very useful information. Since I wrote this post I've acquired a copy of the second Gazette des Beaux-Arts lithograph, La lecture, as well.

Unknown said...

May I ask a question concerning prints. I am a novice but love your site. I have a Gazette and I understand when they state Eau-Forte its an etching Intaglio. What are the other Gravures considered that are part of the magazine? Soft-ground etchings ? Litho? Roto-gravure? Thank you for your insight.
Rafael Alberti

Neil said...

Hi Rafael, Most of the original prints in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts are intaglio - etchings, engravings, or drypoints, or sometimes a mixture of these techniques. There are also some planographic prints such as lithographs, and some relief prints such as wood engravings or woodcuts. What distinguishes them as original prints is that they have been printed from the original copperplate, lithographic stone, or woodblock. With only a very few exceptions, all the original prints in the Gazette were printed as individual plates, to be inserted into the revue at predetermined page numbers (though often I find that the binders have inserted the plates randomly). However, not all the individual plates are original prints. Some are reproductions of various kinds. The table of Gravures at the end of each volume can be confusing, and the word gravure is used loosely, covering original prints and reproductions. So for instance the list of Gravures for January 1875 includes 3 plates, only one of which is original. The first, Vittoria Colonna after Michelangelo is listed as a héliogravure by Amand Durand; the second Le Baron de Vick, is listed as a gravure de M. Waltner, d'après Rubens; the third, Hispania, is listed as a photogravure by Goupil. The original print is the gravure by Waltner, which is a mixture of etching and engraving. The following month has 3 plates: a gravure by Haussoullier which is actually an etching, another photogravure by Goupil, and an eau-forte by Waltner which is an etching with drypoint. At this period the text illustrations are mostly line blocks or sometimes wood engravings (wood engravings could easily be printed alongside type because the blocks were made at exactly the same pica height, just for this purpose). By 1905 the text illustrations are mostly photographs reproduced as screened halftones (if you look at them through a magnifying glass, they resolve into dots). But the mix of plates is very similar: in the first two months, four original prints (two listed as gravure au burin, two listed as eau-forte), and three reproductions (two listed as héliogravure, one as photogravure). Despite the occasional mistake, I have found the reference work Les Estampes de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts 1859-1933 by Pierre Sanchez and Xavier Seydoux an invaluable guide through this minefield of gravures. For 1869 they list and meticulously describe 27 different prints, though they do miss the Prud'hon lithograph.

Unknown said...

Thank you Soo much.. Very insightful !!!!

Kind Regards
Rafael Alberti

Unknown said...

Hi Neil - this is fantastic. I am desperately trying to find out more about Constance. There seem to be no biographies and very little else (other than appearances in books such as Greer's). If you can recommend a source or a book that provides any further information, i would love to know what it is!

Neil said...

Annabel, There's a 1927 monograph by Edmond Pilon, but I've not seen it. She does seem to have been very much neglected by art historians, as if her life and work were mere adjuncts to Prud'hon. Neil

Neil said...

Annabel, There's a 1927 monograph by Edmond Pilon, but I've not seen it. She does seem to have been very much neglected by art historians, as if her life and work were mere adjuncts to Prud'hon. Neil

Unknown said...

Thanks Neil - will see if i can get it from the BL.