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 Vengeance, on which his reputation as a great painter still primarily depends, naturally dominated the depressing galleries of that unappealing institution, and many of the beautiful studies of male and female nudes on blue paper—or, to be accurate, formerly blue paper—which have always been so cherished by collectors, were also to be seen. So too were other superb pictures (especially portraits), drawings, and book illustrations. But there were also a significant number of works that were weird, empty, rhetorical, and dull, and that did nothing to enhance his reputation. For this reason the exhibition attracted much criticism that, to my mind, was thoroughly misguided.

Over the last thirty years or so the French have, at varying levels and in no particular order, been mounting large-scale exhibitions, each devoted to one of their more renowned painters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onward. These have been accompanied by scholarly and fully illustrated catalogs, which are usually too unwieldy to be consulted on the spot, but which have almost invariably found a place on the bookshelf as the most useful and reliable source of up-to-date (and hitherto unpublished) information about the artists in question. Indeed, except in the case of extremely popular painters (La Tour, Chardin, and a few others), these volumes are often the sole source of such information. In France, more than in any other country, writing on art history is transmitted principally through the medium of the exhibition catalog, and this means that pictures that, for one reason or another, cannot be borrowed for an exhibition, run the risk of undergoing a sort of exile from scholarly attention. To the outsider it sometimes appears that, to a significant extent, the ephemeral exhibition is conceived with the permanent catalog in mind—like the enduring magnificence of a papal tomb after a brief and controversial pontificate. It would certainly have been possible to have made a more rigorous and much smaller selection of Prud’hon’s works which would have won instantaneous and fashionable applause—but such an exhibition would, both for those who were able to see it and for those who were not, have seriously impaired an understanding of this extraordinary and long-neglected artist, whose strange variations in quality are an intrinsic aspect of his achievement.


Prud’hon, who combined driving ambition with a determination to preserve his independence, was in Rome at the same time as Jacques-Louis David, who, in 1784, was completing The Oath of the Horatii. It seems likely that the general enthusiasm aroused by this masterpiece, in which a grandly austere style perfectly matched the high-minded lesson in civic duty that it was designed to convey, may have encouraged Prud’hon to renounce ancient history and to concentrate instead on the even more exalted theme of allegories which would give visible expression to the moral and emotional sentiments which have always been common to humanity. But, as a number of such pictures in the Paris exhibition make clear, Prud’hon could almost never—so it seems to us, although his contemporaries felt differently—fully match his style to his theme. His gifts of observation, delicacy, tenderness, and sensuality were unsurpassed, but he seems to have felt that they were not, in themselves, adequate for the requirements of “high art.”

Concepts such as the Union of Love and Friendship presented no problems to eighteenth-century artists (Pajou among them), who treated them as readily as they treated a subject from mythology or ancient history, the portrait of a sovereign or a royal mistress, or indeed any of the other fancies that their patrons demanded of them. David, however, was quite wrong when he casually dismissed Prud’hon as “the Boucher, the Watteau of our times.” He could not imagine that this potential rival was just as seriously committed as he was himself to the ambition of creating moralizing images of lasting worth. In order to depict the noble aspirations that he chose to represent, Prud’hon felt that he had to adjust the style that came most spontaneously to him. He hardened and exaggerated it, and, in so doing, turned it into something strained and self-conscious, further and further removed from the “nature” to which he claimed allegiance—a process that can be observed clearly enough by comparing the preliminary studies he made for his allegories with the completed paintings.

In the catalog the exhibition’s curator, Sylvain Lavessière, tells us of the experience of the critic Charles Blanc, who knew nothing of the artist and, on coming across the title of one of his works, Innocence, seduced by Love, is carried off by Pleasure, but she is followed by Repentance who hides under the wing of the seducer, “laughed until the tears came into my eyes…,” but who, when he saw a print of the work itself, was amazed by its beauty and felt thoroughly ashamed of having ridiculed it. This is a charming story, which reflects great credit on Blanc—but despite all the genuine subtleties of the composition, there is (for us) something risible about this and most of Prud’hon’s other allegories. The contrast between the moral sentiment and the whimsical treatment of it is too wide for comfort. Allegory was on its last legs as a living form, and repeated attempts to revive it in the nineteenth century only rarely proved successful. Yet on one occasion, when (significantly) Prud’hon was required to produce an allegory for a precise location with a specific purpose in mind, he succeeded in revitalizing the genre in the most spectacular way and produced the masterpiece to which I have already referred.

In 1804 he was invited to paint a picture for the criminal court of the Paris Hôtel de Ville, and in the exhibition we can follow the progress of his ideas from his initial drawings to the completed (but now sadly darkened) canvas. From these we can see that at some stage—inspired, it was later claimed, by two lines of Horace to the effect that retribution, however lame, will always succeed in overtaking a fleeing criminal—Prud’hon rejected the fairly conventional composition with which he had been tinkering and replaced it with one that, in its essentials, bore almost no relationship to anything that he had ever done before. Movement rather than stillness, force rather than grace, violence rather than tranquility, brutality rather than eroticism, characterize his Justice and Divine Vengeance.

Above all, Prud’hon takes the daring step of appearing to combine real and allegorical figures. Swooping low over the bleak and rocky landscape which is lit up by a full moon breaking through the clouds, Divine Vengeance, one arm outstretched and the other holding up a flaring torch, turns to urge on the more statuesque Justice, whose unsheathed sword is ready to strike. Fleeing them in vain, yet still looking back to make sure his victim is well and truly dead, is the brutal, wild-eyed figure of Crime, who clutches a stolen bag of gold and a murderous dagger. He is clothed in timeless rags, his features are derived from an ancient bust of Caracalla, and possible hints for his pose have been traced back to various Old Master paintings.


But these are irrelevant compared to the fact that this representation of Crime is something quite new in art: the generalizations of allegory have been discarded to reveal a viciously convincing portrait of a member of those “dangerous classes” who were to emerge in French literature only a generation or so later.

Lying on the ground just behind him and lit up by the moon is the pale, naked body of his victim. But with him we return from the back streets of nineteenth-century Paris to the timeless world of allegory and mythology: the murdered youth is envisaged as one of those graceful ephebes who are to be found in so many pictures of the period. His elegant figure, tranquil now in death, appears to have been no more defiled by the pain that has been inflicted on him than is that of Endymion rapturously exposing himself to the rays of the moon in Girodet’s famous The Sleep of Endymion (1791), which may, curiously enough, have played some part in the genesis of Prud’hon’s terrifying and supremely powerful image.

Although Prud’hon was well into his thirties when the Revolution reached its climax, he had not had the time to establish contacts with the court and influential figures of the ancien régime, as had his slightly older contemporary David. For much of his life he worked for the newly rich, ostentatious, and corrupt society that seized power after the Terror and replaced the now-dispersed aristocracy as almost the only source of patronage until it was joined by the successful soldiers and civil servants who were recruited, on the basis of talent rather than birth, to serve the state by Napoleon.* It seems at least possible that some of Prud’hon’s curious lapses in taste may have been due to his having been among the very first artists to find himself dependent on the unreliable favors of a fragmented society, whose aesthetic standards were the products of choice rather than of inherited tradition—men and women who had the means and the opportunity, but not always the experience, to bring back to life an artistic culture that had been violently interrupted.

Prud’hon’s many and imaginative efforts in the first decade of the ninetenth century to turn the empress Josephine, then well into her forties, into a muse or a nymph, are apparent from the preliminary studies that he made for his famous portrait of her; but evocative though this picture is, it does not wholly convince. The discomfort of her pose and her wish to show off her still-beautiful breasts and arms conflict too blatantly with the mood that she is also trying to convey of quiet reverie in a wooded landscape. In fact most of Prud’hon’s finest portraits were of men and women whose names can never have meant much outside his circle of friends and who are now wholly forgotten. There are some excellent examples in the exhibition, a few of them little known, though for exquisite delicacy and restrained feeling none can rival the most famous of them all, Georges Anthony, shy, gentle, and touchingly unrefined of feature, who shares the canvas with his tall, melancholy, supremely elegant, and somehow protective horse.

In about 1805 Prud’hon made a drawing of the thirty-year-old Constance Mayer, who, after having been his pupil for some two years, now began to share his life and to cooperate closely (but usually with unfortunate results) on his paintings. He kept this portrait for himself, and this is not surprising, because it is difficult to conceive of a more captivating image of the radiant gaiety that springs from reciprocated love. When on May 26, 1821, she cut her throat in a fit of insanity, he gave the drawing away to one of his pupils, since it had now obviously become unbearable for him and he felt that he too had no desire to continue living. He did, however, continue painting until his own death in February 1823, and at the Salon of 1822 he exhibited a small picture which he called Une famille dans la désolation.

This painting cannot now be traced, but its appearance is known from preliminary sketches and a lithograph, which show that it depicted a young workman dying in an attic, supported by his grieving wife and mourned by his tearful children. The drawings for this scene of bleak despair had been made by Prud’hon, while Constance Mayer had begun to paint the picture, as was their usual practice when working together. In the event, what he referred to as her “mort funeste et trop imprévue” meant that it was he who had had to complete it. He was, however, anxious to let it be known that it was she who had chosen what was a highly unusual subject, and he obviously felt that the misery of the image matched the misery of his own life.

By a fortunate chance it is a family scene (but of a very different kind) that greets the visitor to the marvelous Pajou exhibition that has been at the Louvre before coming to New York: a small picture, by an almost unknown artist, which appears not to have been shown in public since the Salon of 1802. Few, if any, more appealing portrayals have ever been made of a totally happy and fulfilled family life. Pajou’s son (who painted it) places his left hand affectionately on the shoulder of his elderly father, who is wrapped in his dressing gown, and directs his delighted gaze to a mirror in which is reflected his own naked son, aged two. The little boy, who laughs with pleasure at the unexpected sight of himself and presses his chubby hands up against the glass as if to make sure that he is really there, is held up by his placid mother, who has just finished feeding him, while the mirror is supported by a young maid who looks down tenderly at her charge, as does his turbaned aunt. On the wall behind hangs a portrait of Pajou’s father, the great-grandfather of the newest member of the family.

This little masterpiece, whose lack of sentimentality makes it so much more moving than most images of family life of the period (by Fragonard, Greuze, Marguerite Gérard, and others), and so poignant when confronted with Prud’hon’s Une famille dans la désolation, was painted when Pajou’s career had almost come to an end, though he was still active and had survived the Revolution unscathed.

He had been among the most successful portraitists of the century, but the world he recorded was very different from the one celebrated in his son’s picture. Amiable and uncompetitive though he seems to have been by temperament, he was obviously at home with the rich and the powerful, the wits and the beauties of the day, and they in turn were highly gratified by his portraits of them. Yet these images almost never convey an impression of conventional flattery. The ugliness of some of his sitters is not concealed, but it is—as it were—redeemed by their apparent intelligence and vitality. Features are sharply differentiated, and his busts must have been instantly recognizable; but there is, nonetheless, a certain underlying resemblance that characterizes all his likenesses. His sitters all seem to be relaxed and to express self-assurance and contentment with the world as it is. This is not revealed through the sort of smirk that can become so monotonous in the pastels of Quentin de La Tour. Pajou can create a far more convincing effect through the tilt of a head, the wrinkles around an eye, the insouciance suggested by a crumpled fold of clothing.

It is certainly true that his portraits of friends, or at any rate colleagues, can be remarkably vivid—such as the one of his teacher Jean-Baptiste II Lemoyne, above all, and (only slightly less so) those of the painter Hubert Robert and the engraver Pierre-François Basan—but it is also true that Pajou seems able to imply that all his sitters, even the greatest, were his friends: not a gift that would have been admired in a portraitist a century earlier.His art was essentially social, and he shows no interest in trying to suggest intensity or introspection or ambiguity or hesitation or concealed emotion of any kind—as Prud’hon was to do in a few of his very finest portraits of private persons.

All this leaves one quite unprepared for Pajou’s large marble statue of Buffon, commissioned for a niche in the Cabinet d’histoire naturelle by Louis XV in 1773, when the great (and very arrogant) naturalist was still alive. Indeed, he did not die until 1788, and he would therefore have been able to admire this unique tribute to his genius for a dozen years or so after the figure had been completed. Monuments on this scale to the glory of living and non-royal personages were almost unheard-of in France, although work on Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s (very different) naked Voltaire, which, however, had been commissioned by private subscription, had been under way for a little time.

The exhibition catalog points to Louis-François Roubiliac’s marble Handel erected in Vauxhall Gardens in London in 1738 as a rare precedent for the statue of Buffon, but a more likely candidate might be John Michael Rysbrack’s statue (also in marble) of the physician Sir Hans Sloane made for the Physick Gardens in Chelsea a year earlier. Both of these had been commissioned and paid for as a result of private initiatives when their subjects were still living; although some connection with Pajou’s Buffon is conceivable this naturally does not apply to the actual appearance of the monument. However, while the bare-chested Buffon, who stands in his antique robes looking up to the heavens for inspiration, bears no resemblance whatever to the seated and congenial Handel, he does seem distantly related to another statue by Roubiliac—the commemorative figure of Sir Isaac Newton which had been carved for the antechapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1755.

Pajou could never have seen this, but the English custom of honoring great men(both dead and alive) with public monuments was greatly admired throughout Europe, and it is possible that Pajou (or some colleague or adviser) could have heard of this masterpiece by a fellow Frenchman and even seen some drawing or print of it. Some support may be given to this suggestion from the fact that the inscription which was (eventually) added to Pajou’s Buffon, MAJESTATI NATURAE PAR INGENIUM (a spirit equal to the majesty of Nature), seems to echo the quotation from the tribute to Epicurus in the De rerum naturae of Lucretius, which had been inscribed on the base of Roubiliac’s Newton, QUI GENUS HUMANUM INGENIO SUPERAVIT (who, through his genius, raised himself above humanity).

Whatever the inspiration for it, Pajou’s statue is a work of astonishing ambition and power—without, however, being wholly successful. The conception is grand, the pose dignified; the lion, dog, and other animals studied by Buffon which recline at his feet in no way detract from his dignity; but Buffon’s own head, and even his robust torso, do just that. We know that he was a vain man, and perhaps he could not bear the thought that his features would have to be generalized for a statue that aimed to emulate antique precedents. Or perhaps it was Pajou himself who was unwilling to suppress his marvelous gift for rendering human features at their most vivacious. The catalog assures us that the imagery of the statue can only be fully understood if Buffon’s works have been carefully read, and perhaps even Pajou found this rather too time-consuming. In any case the resulting compromise between the natural and the stylized (a compromise that had been required neither for Roubiliac’s Newton nor for Pigalle’s Voltaire) is an uneasy and slightly embarrassing one that leaves Buffon looking as if he does not know precisely what he is doing in such unusual attire.

When Pajou was required to design statues of some of the most famous figures in French history for a patriotic series of great men commissioned by the government during the last years of the ancien régime, he seems to have been completely at ease. Inspired by the eighteenth-century belief that, despite changes in fashion, humanity has remained essentially the same throughout civilized history, he evidently did not feel the need to pursue any special research beyond looking at contemporary portraits of the thinkers and military men whom he was required to portray. His statue of the seated Pascal certainly shows him as a man of intellectual distinction, but he is not conceived of as the demigod of Roubiliac’s Newton; nor are we required to read Pascal’s works to appreciate its quality. Indeed we are not made to feel that it would be unimaginable to come across this Pascal in a Paris drawing room. The paradoxical consequence of Pajou’s relaxed approach to this commission is that his interpretation of past history still seems to us to be far more convincing than the “learned” perception of it that was to come into vogue in the art of the next century.

It may be that the continuities rather than the contrasts between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries will become more apparent when the nineteenth ceases to be the “last century,” but the Prud’hon and Pajou exhibitions—or rather, the happy coincidence of their juxtapositions both in Paris and New York—can only encourage speculation about what had changed, and indeed been rendered impossible, in the arts after the end of the ancien régime. Until the end of his life Prud’hon retained many affinities with eighteenth-century taste, and these were cherished by his admirers. And yet he emerges as a radically different artist from Pajou (for whom Prud’hon’s approach to Justice and Divine Vengeance would have been inconceivable). The distinction between them, however, often seems to lie not so much in evident and specific dissimilarities of style as in the assurance, or lack of it, with which each treated the subjects that they were commissioned, or chose, to undertake. That Prud’hon was an extremely gifted artist of real originality can surely not be doubted by any visitor to the exhibition. Yet he frequently seems to hesitate when he becomes aware of the extent of his originality and, partly for that reason, produces work below what one feels to be his true potential.

Uncertainty of this kind was quite alien to Pajou—and it would be just as alien to Géricault, who died only a year after Prud’hon. Géricault, however, had been born a generation later than Prud’hon and had spent his youth during the Napoleonic period, when the inhibiting ethos of eighteenth-century conventions on which Prud’hon had been nourished was finally swept away. In this new atmosphere he seems to have developed far more confidence than Prud’hon had been able to manage in the true nature of his innovative gifts and to have overcome any hesitation in exploiting them to the full.

The catalogs for the two exhibitions belong to the now well-established category of being unusable at the exhibitions themselves and totally indispensable (as well as very pleasurable) afterward.

This Issue

March 5, 1998