It was in in 1804 that Nicolas Frochot, Préfet de la Seine, commissioned the artist Prud'hon to produce a painting for the Criminal Tribunal hall, the high court at the Paris Palais de Justice. The painter came up with two projects, both showing the same four protagonists: Themis (Justice), Nemesis (Divine Vengeance), Crime, the Victim. This here is the second of the two, and it is remarkable for its restrained dramatic eloquence. The aim of the work, given its proposed siting, was to strike the emotions, to "give a commotion to the soul", as Prud'hon put it: "Divine Justice" he went on, "is forever pursuing crime; and crime never gets away. Wrapped in the veil of night, in a remote and wild place, voracious Crime has killed a victim, taken his gold and is turning to see whether any remains of life might give him away. Fool! He does not see that Nemesis, that terrible agent of Justice, like a vulture descending upon his prey, is pursuing him, will catch him and hand him over to his unbending companion..."
This night murder scene has often been interpreted as that of the first crime of humanity, the murder of Cain by Abel. The guilty man, with his thick, brutal criminal's face modelled on the Roman emperor Caracalla, is the prey of implacable fate, which tears through the black clouds in the sky by the light of the moon. Here the lighting plays a fundamental role: that of the moon is echoed by Vengeance's torch, and Justice, a severe à l'antique figure, carries a sword and the scales judgement, judgement having already been passed.
The sketch was finished in 1806 and the painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1808 where Napoleon decorated Prud'hon with the Légion d'honneur. Unusually in this case, the caricaturists took hold of the work and parodied it, replacing the figure of crime with that of the Emperor. The painting by Prud'hon was installed in the Palais de Justice in 1809, presented at the exhibition of decennial prizes in 1810, and again shown at the Salon of 1814. it was finally returned to the artist on the fall of the Empire. Held at the Musée du Luxembourg from 1818, it entered the Louvre on Prud'hon's death in 1823.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)