Discovering Prud’hon

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:

Prudhon1

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:

Prudhon4

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:

Prudhon24

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:

Prudhon18

The musculature on this one is remarkable, and the model looks better than most of the guys at Equinox Gym!

Prudhon23

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:

Marie-Françoise_Constance_Mayer-Lamartinière

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:

Prudhon25

Prudhon15

12 thoughts on “Discovering Prud’hon

  1. K L says:

    Claudia,
    How beautifully presented and told…my mind is shouting more! more! more! I could sit and read all day. There is only one problem I have with your blog, it’s not long enough. On second thought that might be what makes it so good..a little tease goes a long way. If only everyone could write like you, further study on your blog subjects usually leads to a narrative that is dry as the desert. Write on.

    • artmodel says:

      KL,

      That’s so funny because I’m usually afraid that I write too much! I’m not exactly succinct in my posts. But I’m delighted that you don’t find me too verbose. I’m also delighted that you find my writing so readable. I do aim for that. I too dislike writing that is, as you say, “dry as the desert”. And this blog is a conscious effort to counteract that.

      Thanks so much for your comments!

      Claudia

  2. fredh1 says:

    Prud’hon is a master of light and shadow, but that portrait of Constance totally blows the figure drawings out of the water, in my opinion. You feel like you’re seeing a real person. He’s also captured a seemingly fleeting, spontaneous expression, in an age before photography.

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Yes, that’s a superb. well-crafted portrait of Constance. And you’re right about the facial expression. It’s ephemeral like a snapshot.

      Thanks for your observation!

      Claudia

  3. Bruce says:

    Always one of my favorites, the Prud’hon show at the Met a few years ago was gorgeous. I have to say though, his drawings are far superior to his paintings. I’m sure that judgment is partly from a modern viewpoint, where a drawing can be considered a final work of art instead of a preliminary stage of a final painting.

    • artmodel says:

      Bruce,

      I completely agree. When I was browsing Prud’hon’s paintings, thinking I might include one in this post, they struck me as not in the same league as his drawings. Prud’hon’s rival David, on the other hand, is simply a master at painting.

      That’s a great point you make about drawings as an entity in themselves and the modern viewpoint.

      Thanks for commenting Bruce!

      Claudia

  4. swatch says:

    Thanks again Claudia – wow what craft! And what a shocking story – those people lived on the edge. I can’t begin to imagine the passion it would take to cut my own throat nor the feelings caught up in those last few moments together.

    • artmodel says:

      Swatch,

      Much to my dismay, I have written A LOT of these tragic, passionate stories with artists and their personal lives. Too many. I have become emotional and saddened while researching them for the blog. But like you said, these people have lived lives often “on the edge”, in a mindset that is desperate and impetuous.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Claudia

  5. ColdSilverMoon says:

    I love Prud’hon and I love Porcu – nice combo post, Claudia! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to imitate Prud’hon gestures for life drawing classes – the man was truly a drawing master. And Porcu is incredible. I’ve only posed for him a handful of times, but the man is a genius and a terrific teacher. Thanks for the great post!

    As a side note, I actually really like modeling at the Art Students League. Yes, the model situation can be chaotic, but there is something very visceral and “real” about the place. It’s less sterile and more organic than most big schools and ateliers. And I just love the smell – it’s a combination of the musty smell of an old building, charcoal, plaster, and model sweat. I feel very much alive when I model there, especially for the evening classes…

    • artmodel says:

      ColdSilverMoon,

      Since Museworthy is first and foremost an art model’s blog, I should have posted about Prud’hon a long time ago. The gestures and poses alone deserve our acknowledgement. And I couldn’t agree with you more about Frank Porcu. He really is a genius, and I feel my modeling experience was enriched profoundly by having posed for his class.

      I appreciate your feelings about the Art Students League. Even though I badmouth the place from time to time, I don’t deny that I have some great memories from there and, more importantly, forged some cherished friendships. I don’t regret working at the Art Students League, but I also don’t regret leaving. Everything you said about the League is true in terms of how it “feels” to be there, the energy, etc. But the level of dysfunction in that school in the management, administration, and their attitude toward the models is very disappointing. I don’t understand why it’s too complicated for the League to simply treat the models with the most basic level of respect for what we do. It almost borders on contempt, which is disturbing. They don’t have to roll out the red carpet for us, but why they cannot demonstrate just basic respect/appreciation for the art models is still a mystery to me.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  6. babahr says:

    Hi Claudia.

    We ran a story on Prud’hon a while back that you might find interesting. Here’s the link:

    http://www.myamericanartist.com/2007/05/the_erotic_frig.html

    Bob

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