The artist made this sketch in preparation for a full-length portrait of Madame Dufresne that is now lost. Prud'hon showed the sitter—probably the wife of an art dealer—in a landscape where she is seated in a relaxed pose with her legs crossed. According to an early auction record, the composition is based upon one of several sketches Prud'hon made for a portrait of Empress Josephine (1763–1814). The empress probably rejected the pose as too casual. Prud'hon's portraits show his skill in capturing emotions, especially melancholy. This is true of the Cleveland portrait; despite its rough surface, we sense the sitter's gentle demeanor and slightly wistful expression. In 1789 Prud'hon was awarded the Prix de Rome, a scholarship that allowed especially gifted French art students the chance to study in Rome. While in Italy, Prud'hon was deeply influenced not only by ancient Roman art but also by the lively, international Neoclassical movement that was centered there. After his return to France, the artist became very popular with Napoleon, painting portraits of the emperor and his entourage and acting as Empress Josephine's drawing instructor.
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