Pierre Paul Prud'hon (French, 1758–1823)
Oil on canvas
85 x 55 7/8 in. (215.9 x 141.9 cm)
Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in memory of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, 1994 (1994.190)
This lifesize portrait of Talleyrand, a brilliant political figure who served under every French ruler from Louis XVI to Louis-Philippe, is the last of three by Prud'hon, who was a principal painter of Napoleon's court. The other canvases, depicting Talleyrand in court costume, were commissioned by Napoleon for the château de Compiègne in 1806 (Château de Valençay, Indre) and 1807 (Musée Carnavalet, Paris). After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Talleyrand obtained the two earlier portraits and asked Prud'hon to repaint one showing him in civilian attire. The artist's notorious craquelure had already set in, so instead Prud'hon painted the present work, about April 1817.
This canvas may be considered one of the most imposing of Prud'hon's formal portraits of the great personalities of the day. Showing Talleyrand not as an administrative official but as one of the extraordinary intellects of his time, Prud'hon presents the witty and treacherous ambassador as a savant: in a richly appointed room he leans on the pedestal of a bust of Marcus Aurelius while another (of Demosthenes?) looks on.