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pierre-paul prud’hon
(1758 Cluny – 1823 Paris)

Phrosine and Mélidore. Etching and engraving. 34.4 x 25.3 cm. (1797). Goncourt 4 III (of VI).

Prud’hon’s little graphic masterpiece illustrates with dramatic intensity the fourth part of Gentil Bernard’s poem Phrosine et Mélidore, in todays perception a somewhat artificial and sentimental product of the ancien régime. Ever since its first appear­ance this remarkable print has exercised a powerful fascination due to its extraordinary atmosphere and unabashed eroticism. The etching was made as an illustration to a new edition of Bernard’s poem brought out by the Parisian publisher François Ambroise Didot in 1797. The melodramatic poem, the action of which takes place in the southern Italian town of Messina during the Middle Ages, tells the unhappy love story of a young couple. The heroine Phrosine is prevented by her two jealous brothers from pursuing her love for Mélidore, whereupon the latter withdraws to lead the life of a hermit on an island within sight of Phrosine’s house. Passion, however, makes her disregard her brothers’ wishes, and, guided by the light of a torch, she swims across the strait and collapses exhausted from her exer­tions on the other side, where Mélidore awakens his beloved with the warmth of his embrace. As is only to be expected, the story takes a fatal turn: during another nightly crossing Phrosine drowns, and Mélidore takes his own life in despair.

Demonstrating a keen sense of the dramatic, Prud’hon has chosen a moment suprême of the story. Against an eerie nocturnal backdrop Mélidore, dressed in a monk’s habit, fervently draws the limp naked body of his lover to him. A blazing log fire lights up the soft contours of her sensuous, ample body. Behind the couple rises a sheer cliff with a chapel at the top. Cold moonlight is reflected on the crests of the waves, while on the horizon we can dimly make out the shore from which Phrosine set off to keep her night-time tryst.

Of this etching, which was probably the result of a collaboration between Prud’hon and the engraver Barthélemy Roger, a total of six printing states are known. The first state, a trial proof executed by Prud’hon on his own, is conceived as a pure etching (Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques). In the two following states the plate was extensively reworked by Roger with the burin and supplemented by a script tablet and Prud’hon’s signature. Although this intervention obscures Prud’hon’s actual intentions to some extent, it does not detract in the least from the artistic quality of the work. Under Prud’hon’s guidance Roger’s engraving style proves to be technically sophis­ticated and employs a remarkable variety of dense hatching patterns to produce excellent light effects. At the same time, the refined, stippling technique favoured by Prud’hon to render the three-dimensionality of Phrosine’s body sets off the aesthetic strengths of his art to best advantage. As a draughtsman Prud’hon is one of the masters of his craft, and few could portray the female body with so much linear beauty and vibrant sensuality. His truly masterly nude studies show an astonishing gift for lifelike characterization and formal refinement, and despite the Grand Guignol nature of Gentil Bernard’s poem, some of these features are on display in this etching too.

A brilliant, sharp and contrasting impression, printed on the full sheet. Slightly foxed, otherwise in perfect condition.