From her Self Portrait (above; date unfortunately unknown), Constance Mayer looks like a very interesting woman. In the archetypal pose of the creative melancholic, her head rests in her hand as she gazes dreamily into the distance, contemplating matters of a meaningful nature. But there’s also a sense that she’s already given up. A promising young artist, she exhibited her joint self portrait with her supportive father at the Paris Salon aged only 21 (see feature image). She also studied under Greuze and worked in the studio of Napoleon’s favourite, Jacques Louis David. If it wasn’t for her melancholy temperament and blighted relationship with Pierre Proud’hon, she may have become a very successful artist. As it turned out, no-one’s heard of her and until recently most of her oeuvre was attributed to her lover. In 1802 she became a kind of pupil of his – but like Claudel and Rodin, they not only worked closely together, but lived closely together too. When Prud’hon’s wife was placed in an asylum (for openly suggesting her husband was having an affair with the Empress Josephine, whose portrait he was painting at the time), Napoleon himself provided them with adjoining apartments at the Sorbonne. Constance looked after him and his 5 children. They collaborated on many works, he doing most of the design and under-drawing and she doing the painting. Apparently she was the more competent artist. After the death of his wife in the asylum, Mayer naturally assumed he would marry her. But this wasn’t part of his plan. In her despair she killed herself by cutting her throat with his razor (in 1821, at the age of 46). Tragic as that was, it was probably a better fate than spending 30 years in an asylum as Camille did. Her eerie painting ‘The Dream of Happiness’ (shown above), uncannily predicts her dark future. The ideal loving couple (presumably representative of the two artists and a hoped-for baby), at peace in the stern are being rowed by a strong and competent oarsman – but unfortunately he has no control as his hands are being guided by mischievous Cupid, god of love. The bark heads towards a dark and uncertain future behind a deathly-looking tree. It is interesting to compare this fatalistic work with Claudel’s ‘Age of Maturity’ (in previous post). Mayer and Claudel needed the inspiration and guidance of a stronger male artist, but also perhaps sensed that love couldn’t be relied upon.
Constance Mayer: Self Portrait; Mayer and Prud’hon: ‘The Dream of Happiness’ 1819