The Art of the Possible

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon 12, 1998, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 10, 1998-June 7, 1998.

by 1997-January an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, September 23, Catalog of the exhibition by Sylvain Lavessière
Metropolitan Museum/Abrams, 344 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Augustin Pajou, Royal Sculptor and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 26-May 24, 1998.

byan exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, October 20, 1997-January 19, 1998, Catalog of the exhibition by James David Draper and Guilhelm Scherf
Metropolitan Museum/Abrams, 420 pp., $45.00 (paper)

The exhibitions of paintings by Pierre Prud’hon and of sculptures by Augustin Pajou, which opened at more or less the same time in Paris and are now moving to New York, cannot have been planned as a pair, but in an extraordinary way each one is enhanced by the other, and the almost invariable success of Pajou and frequent failure of Prud’hon inevitably make one reflect on what was, or was not, possible in art at different times.

Of all the French artists who achieved fame between the last years of the ancien régimeand the end of the Empire, Prud’hon alone retained the affection as well as the admiration of art lovers during the Romantic period, the Second Empire, and the Third Republic. Only Prud’hon, it was felt, had been able to revive the spirit of antiquity without succumbing to the “dryness and pedantry” of David and his followers, and only he had been able to preserve the delicacy and sensuality of the rococo without falling prey to artificiality and mannerism. Although virtually all the work by which he is now remembered was produced (unlike that of David) after 1800, he alone among his contemporaries was granted the accolade of an essay in the series that the Goncourt brothers devoted to the artists of the eighteenth century.

And yet to move between the exhibition of his paintings and drawings in the Grand Palais and that of the sculptures and drawings of Augustin Pajou in the Louvre—a move that will be even easier in New York, where both exhibitions will be shown at the Metropolitan Museum—was a curiously disorienting experience. Although Pajou was born in 1730, twenty-eight years before Prud’hon, he only died in 1809, one year after Prud’hon’s masterpiece La Justice et la Vengeance divine poursuivant le Crime had won unanimous acclaim at the Salon. During his long life Pajou devised allegories and portraits, mythologies and pseudo-historical reconstructions, architectural decoration and maquettes for tomb sculptures. He worked mainly in terra cotta and marble, but one of the revelations of theParis exhibition lay in a number of splendid, large-scale “historical” drawings of a kind that we do not associate with sculptors.

Pajou adopted a variety of styles that ranged from a sort of Berninesque revival to what we would loosely describe as rococo and neoclassicism—terms which would have meant nothing to him, and should not mean too much to us when appraising the achievements of so versatile and undogmatic an artist. Yet, without ever being bland or slick, all his works give the impression of having being produced with easy assurance. All are of very high quality, and one of them (to which I will return) is among the most ambitious and astonishing creations of the whole century. It is not surprising that visitors to this admirably installed exhibition evinced none of the indifference toward sculpture that is usually attributed to the public and emerged from it feeling thoroughly exhilarated.

Not far away, at the Grand Palais, Prud’hon’s Justice and Divine…

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