Met Revives Two Unknowns Who Deserved Their Fate

Exhibitions that fill a gap in our firsthand knowledge of art are always to be welcomed. But are they always to be enjoyed? That, more often than not, is too much to hope for. In art, after all, as in other realms of human endeavor, obscure reputations are sometimes well deserved.

This would seem to have been the unenviable fate of the two French artists whose works are currently on view in separate exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: the sculptor Augustin Pajou (1730-1809) and the painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823). Are their names unfamiliar to you? Never mind. You are hardly alone in this respect. It can confidently be said of both artists that few visitors to the Met exhibitions are likely to have a close acquaintance with their work–though chances are that, if you have spent any time in the French museums, you have caught a glimpse of Prud’hon’s pictures on your way to look at something else.

That we have been in urgent need of repairing this state of affairs, I very much doubt. French art in their respective generations abounds in great achievement, yet neither Pajou nor Prud’hon was himself a master talent. Both were gifted journeymen technicians who, in varying degrees, conformed to the taste of their times without altering its course or contributing to its strengths. In the case of Prud’hon, the more interesting of the two, this meant adapting his art to the canons of two distinct periods. Which is why historians of 18th-century French painting tend to find Prud’hon inferior to Jean Honoré Fragonard, while historians of 19th-century French painting judge him to be inferior to Jacques Louis David. Alas, both assessments are amply confirmed in the present exhibition.

What remains of primary interest in the work of artists of this rank is not so much the quality of their accomplishment, which tends to be modest where it is not simply risible, but the light which their art casts on the life of art itself. Pajou was, in this regard, less fortunate than Prud’hon. As an official portrait sculptor in the service of the royal courts of Louis XV and Louis XVI, Pajou’s principal task was to idealize his subjects by turning them into bloodless models of neo-classical rationality and decorum. If this meant extinguishing everything that was most individual in his subjects, Pajou could be counted upon to enforce the prevailing standard. It is only in some of the terra-cotta portrait busts–particularly those of women–that some discernible trace of feeling survives the process. In the marbles, even that minimal remnant of unorchestrated emotion is held in check by the unremitting demands of correct taste.

Still, I wouldn’t go as far as Denis Diderot, who, in The Salon of 1767 , wrote of a group of Pajou’s portrait busts: “More wretched, more ignoble, more foolish than I’d ever be able to convey to you.” And further: “I admire nothing he showed this year. I examined the long row of his busts for something I might praise, but in vain.” So it’s comforting to know why this is the first ever full-scale exhibition we have seen devoted to this artist more than 200 years after Diderot panned him.

Augustin Pajou, Royal Sculptor , as the Met’s show is called, is not without some amusing moments, however. These are mainly to be found in the big marble monuments to some of the intellectual eminences of the age–among them, the naturalist Buffon and the philosopher Blaise Pascal. These monuments are, so to speak, the sculptural dinosaurs of their epoch, and it is not hard to see why the species has suffered extinction. In the voluminous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, James David Draper writes that “Pajou epitomizes the spirit of the Enlightenment.” This, if true, would be a terrible indictment of the Enlightenment. (Question: If Pajou really does epitomize the spirit of the Enlightenment, what spirit does his critic Diderot epitomize?) My own view is that Pajou looks a lot more like a harbinger of Madame Tussaud.

At first glance, there seems to be a good deal more air to breathe in the Pierre-Paul Prud’hon exhibition. But as much of that air is scented with the pieties of an amorousness masquerading as high-minded ethical allegory, one soon begins to wonder if Prud’hon’s penchant for an easy allegorical moralism represents much of an improvement on Pajou’s facile iconic rectitude.

Like Pajou, however, only better, Prud’hon could certainly draw. Drawing was one thing the Academy knew how to teach, and the principal pleasures in both exhibitions are to be found in the drawings. Often, indeed, the drawings for Prud’hon’s major paintings are more compelling than the finished pictures, which tend to die a slow death in the course of their execution.

As a painter, moreover–especially as a painter of instructional allegory–Prud’hon can always be counted on to lapse into a melodramatic fatuousness that betrays the very tradition from which the pictures derive. In a painting like The Union of Love and Friendship (1793), the virile conventions of Italian Renaissance painting are reduced to a vaguely prurient insipidity. And it doesn’t get better, either, so long as Prud’hon is engaged in his allegorical and instructional pictorial projects. If some of the earlier allegories look back to Correggio for inspiration–Correggio enjoyed great favor in Prud’hon’s day–a later painting like Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1815-18) seems to look forward to the likes of Adolphe Bouguereau. In the prostrate nude male figure in the foreground of the Justice picture, we seem to be given a preview of Bouguereau’s necrophiliac taste.

The worst, however, comes in the end with Prud’hon’s awful attempt at a major religious canvas in Christ on the Cross (1822). One can well understand why, according to Eugène Delacroix, “Prud’hon asked his friends to destroy it after his death.” He had labored on the painting during the last two years of his life and was never satisfied with his progress on it. Did he come to understand, perhaps, that in inviting comparison with the Old Masters he revered by attempting one of their greatest subjects, he was risking ridicule? He certainly knew he had failed in this work.

Portraiture, rather than allegorical or religious subjects, was more in keeping with Prud’hon’s range of feeling. The big painting of the Empress Josephine at Malmaison (1805) is thus a more persuasive accomplishment than Christ on the Cross . But is Prud’hon’s enough of an accomplishment to merit a revival on the present scale–some 56 paintings and over 100 works on paper? I remain unpersuaded.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon remains on view at the Met through June 7, while Augustin Pajou, Royal Sculptor closes on May 24. Met Revives Two Unknowns Who Deserved Their Fate