Three years ago I was still modeling at the Art Students League. For New York models, working at that place is a rocky, volatile, unpredictable scene. And infuriating. I left that school largely due to those circumstances. In fact, just recently there has been yet another tumultuous upheaval involving the models, and I’m thankful I’m not there for it! I’ll blog about all that another time.
But I do have some special memories of the place. For example, I was deeply honored and flattered to be requested as a model by the League’s illustrious drawing instructor Frank Porcu. He asked me not just to pose for his Friday night class, but to pose for ALL his Friday nights. Every week of every month, for an entire school year. Wow. I was stunned. But not too stunned to accept the job.
Frank Porcu specializes in human anatomy, which means that posing for his class is rigorous, demanding work. Not for the faint-hearted. It involves a standing pose, always, with no exception. It also involves taking direction from Frank for anatomy demos – doing certain movements and twists to demonstrate the skeleton and muscles in action. And lastly it means allowing Frank to draw on your body with charcoal. Some models are uncomfortable with that but I kind of liked it! It tickles
Any model who has not posed for Frank Porcu’s class, or has refused because of the hard work, well it’s their loss. They have missed out on what I found to be an incredible learning experience. Listening to Frank’s passionate and exciting lectures was fascinating! His knowledge is off the charts, and his ability to illuminate the complexities of human anatomy – and how to draw them – is truly amazing.
So on one of those Friday nights Frank embarked on a demo for which I wasn’t needed. With a nice break on my hands, I made a quick trip to the bathroom, slinked back into the room, and sat down in a chair to listen attentively. I heard Frank speaking a name I was unfamiliar with, so I whispered in the ear of the student sitting next to me, “Who is he talking about?”. The student answered, “Prud’hon”. Like a giant idiot, I said, “Prudhomme? Paul Prudhomme the CHEF?? Why is Frank talking about him?”. Yes I really said that The student laughed and replied, “No, no. Pierre Prud’hon the artist”. Artist? What artist? I had never heard of him. And here I thought I was so well-informed about art.
Pierre Paul Prud’hon worked during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a critical period not just for French art but for French politics. Prud’hon was an avid supporter of the French Revolution and later of Napoleon, who hired the artist for commissioned portraits of his wife Josephine and drawing lessons.
Prud’hon’s extraordinary talent as a draftsman is evident in his figure work. It also becomes crystal clear why Frank Porcu chose him as the consummate example of how to do artistic anatomy. Just look at these beauties:
This pose is very “art posey”, but a useful one for a figure study. I love how Prud’hon expresses both the mechanics of the human body AND its elegance, simultaneously:
The wonderful thing about looking at drawings, as opposed to paintings, is that you can really see the artist’s “hand” at work, in the marks, shadings, the touch in his lines and strokes. Prud’hon reveals his technique here:
Prud’hon’s drawing medium of choice was chalk, which he obviously handled to perfection. Brilliantly, he was able to achieve the sensuous surface to which artists aspire in their drawings. I am no expert on drawing materials, but if I didn’t know better I would think this next one was in silverpoint:
The musculature on this one is remarkable, and the model looks better than most of the guys at Equinox Gym!
Unfortunately, Prud’hon had a troubled personal life. He married young, at 20, but the union was unhappy and problematic. His wife was eventually committed to an insane asylum. In 1803, Prud’hon began a romantic relationship with one of his pupils, Constance Mayer. She was a fine artist in her own right, and a faithful companion to Prud’hon. During their 18 years together she helped look after his six children and assisted him with his painting projects. When she finally asked him for marriage, Prud’hon flatly declined. Constance then committed suicide by cutting her throat in his studio. Prud’hon tried to save her but it was to no avail. Constance bled to death.
Prud’hon himself died just two years later. Ironically, after their intense disagreement about marriage, Prud’hon and Constance are buried side-by-side, for eternity, in (where else?) Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Prud’hon’s portrait of Constance:
My ignorance of Prud’hon that Friday night three years ago at the Art Students League is not totally implausible, thank god! The truth is that Prud’hon has suffered from limited fame, especially in proportion to his talent. You have to ask yourself, why is this guy not more well known? One reason could be the “curse of the competition”. Like Christopher Marlowe forever in the shadow of Shakepeare, Prud’hon had to contend with the insane popularity and devoted followers of his contemporary Jacques-Louis David. David is considered THE French artist of the Napoleonic Age. I suggest that maybe half of that crown should go to Prud’hon? From a figure model’s viewpoint it would feel like justice served.
Today, Prud’hon’s breathtaking figure drawings are an inspiration to artists who are honing their skills and trying to master their craft. And I am grateful to Frank Porcu for introducing this humble artist’s model to Prud’hon’s work. Hey, maybe I should thank the Art Students League too? Uh, no.
I could look at Prud’hon’s exquisite nudes all day. Here’s two more for the road, one each male and female: