Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758 – 1823) was a French painter and draughtsman whose work reflected a transition from late 18th Century Neo-classicism to a more poetic Romanticism. When Prud’hon was 26, he traveled to Italy to study and was impressed with the work of Leonardo da Vinci and Correggio. The work of these masters inspired him to render his figures with the softer Sfumato lighting effect which was different from the sculptural style of his Neo-classical contemporaries. The soft light gave many of his works a dream like quality.
In the early 19th Century there was a fad for the women of the French elite to have their portraits painted sitting on Neo-classical furniture in flowing robes which imitated ancient Greek fashion. What I find interesting about this, the fad may have been the first time in history that culture became fetishism, went production to reproduction, which in more recent times led to the death of culture. Prud’hon’s Romanticism, his allegories may have been a response to the superficial culture of his contemporaries. Prud’hon’s portrait of Napoleon’s wife Empress Josephine differs from the portraits of his French contemporaries, he painted the Empress away from civilization reclining before an enchanted forest.
I think Prud’hon’s The Torch of Venus must be the most charming painting of the early 19th Century, the putti party is reminiscent of Titian’s Worship of Venus. Venus gestures to a blindfolded little girl to come a torch she holds which is set aflame by Cupid. A burning torch held by Venus symbolizes the passion of love. I believe the allegory represents Venus encouraging the girl to follow the passion of love even though love may be blind.
Many modern critics would likely dismiss Prud’hon’s work as sentimental kitsch but if one looks closely at the content of his work, there is considerable substance. Prud’hon was active at the time of the emergence of industrialization. Thinkers of the time such as Frederick Schiller recognized that life was alienated due to the effects of the modern process, the priorities of life were becoming imbalanced. I believe Prud’hon was influenced by his environment to paint Innocence Preferring Love To Wealth. The maiden Innocence affectionately places her arm over the youth Cupid as Wealth fails to persuade her with a box of jewelry. Obviously, Prud’hon’s patrons were very wealthy, so his painting essentially refuted the culture he was working in. I find Prud’hon’s work more “challenging” than anything created by todays provocateurs. What does Damien Hirst’s I’ll Love you Forever and Jeff Koons’ Hanging Heart tell us? The images only mirror the loveless contemporary culture, they do not challenge it.