Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (France, 1758–1823)

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon was fascinated by the subject of this painting: love, and its delicate balance between eroticism, desire and grief. He explored love and its repercussions in his drawings for more than 30 years, but it wasn’t until 1809—when Napoleon commissioned a painting on the subject for his wife, Josephine—that the artist was given an opportunity to turn his nearly lifelong fascination into an allegorical painting.

The work was to be shown publically in the Salon—the state-sponsored exhibition of new art—the following year. This should have been the moment for Prud’hon to finally realize his ambitions; sadly, the painting would never be completed. Late in 1809, Napoleon announced that he was divorcing Josephine. The couple had remained childless, and Napoleon wanted to remarry in order to secure an heir to his Empire. Private desires and public circumstances had come into conflict. The painting’s subject—love, its pleasure and pain—was now an unwelcome one, and Prud’hon left it unfinished. 

Pierre‑Paul Prud'hon, Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, and Remorse Follows (1809), oil on canvas, 98 x 81.5 x 2.5 cm. NGC

In a forest glade, we see a procession of four figures. Innocence—a beautiful woman—walks together with Love: not the boy Cupid we might expect, but a young man, identified by a quiver for his famous arrows, slung over his back. The two embrace, lost in one another. Pleasure—a young boy—heedlessly grips Love’s dress and pulls her onwards. Remorse follows close behind, unseen by the others. Hand held up to bowed head, shoulders slumped, Remorse’s body language is easily interpreted.

Allegories, which give visual expression to abstract ideas, have become an unfamiliar concept. Many museum visitors will pass by allegorical works without a second glance: “An Allegory of the Just Rule of King X”, “An Allegorical Portrait of the Countess of Y Shown as the Goddess Diana”, etc. Many eighteenth-century viewers were similarly disinterested. Allegories were not like other paintings: they could not be “read”, as we might read a story, but were instead puzzles to be deciphered. Allegories relied upon their viewers’ knowledge of codified symbols, and their desire to reason out hidden meanings. By Prud’hon’s time, allegories had come to be seen as artificial, empty games. An art form that had been part of the elite culture for centuries was slowly losing its grip on the imagination.

Prud’hon, however, wanted to reverse that trend, to revitalize the allegory. This painting does not depend on abstract symbols; instead, the figures embody and express their very natures. Pleasure is childlike because, like children, pleasure can be thoughtless, living in the moment. Love seduces young Innocence, and their desire for one another is clear. Remorse expresses its condition in pose and gesture. One follows the other, intimately and inevitably linked together. Prud’hon’s allegory is not a riddle that needs to be unraveled, but rather engages us emotionally and aesthetically. We can take pleasure in Prud’hon’s art, and in the picture’s beauty, and are moved by the subject’s universal relevance. It is a subtle, sophisticated examination of desire and its consequences.

Prud’hon kept the painting with him until his death. Sold at auction with the rest of his estate, it passed from one private collection to another until early 2012, when the National Gallery was able to buy it. Its acquisition is a major coup for Canada’s national collection: Love Seduces is a famous picture—even emblematic of the artist’s achievements and personality. It is the only painting by Prud’hon in a Canadian gallery.

 

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