by Roderick Conway Morris

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A French Master Who Went His Own Way

By Roderick Conway Morris
Paris 22 October 2015
Los Angeles Museum of Fine Art
Le Lever by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1770



A virtuoso in many fields — from the mythological and religious to landscape and the erotic — Jean-Honoré Fragonard is the artist who seems most to embody the hedonistic spirit of the upper echelons of French society in the last decades before the Revolution.

His erotic works, some of which are now among his most celebrated creations, are the focus of 'Fragonard in Love: Suitor and Libertine' at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, a diverting exhibition of nearly 100 pieces by the artist and his contemporaries. Curated by Guillaume Faroult, the show runs until Jan. 24.

Fragonard's career was unorthodox in that, having won acclaim as a public artist, he abruptly altered course, opting for greater independence by working for private patrons.

He was born in Grasse, in the south of France, in 1732. His shopkeeper family moved in 1738 to Paris, where his natural gifts gave him an entrée to the studios of two of the most prominent artists of the day, François Boucher and Jean-Siméon Chardin. Though Fragonard was not a student at the Académie Royale and therefore not eligible to enter the competition for the Prix de Rome, the most sought-after scholarship for young artists, in 1752 he put himself forward with Boucher's assistance and was selected. This enabled him to spend nearly six years in Italy, the ideal preparation for a prestigious career as a history painter.

In 1765 he triumphed at the Salon, Paris's premier annual showcase, with 'Coresus and Callirhoë,' a grand mythological canvas, which won him an immediate invitation to join France's artistic elite as a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. But he did not take advantage of this opportunity, abandoned the Grand Manner, and seldom thereafter showed at the Salon.

Fragonard set about meeting the demands of other patrons, many of whom were in search of sketches and paintings with an amorous and erotic content. The fashion for such smaller pictures was driven by the evolution of the boudoir and the 'petite maison,' or private house of assignation, on the outskirts of the city, which required smaller-scale, often stimulatingly risqué works as a key element of the décor.

The exhibition opens with some of the conventional canvases that made Fragonard's name during the 1750s and 1760s, including 'Psyche Shows her Sisters the Presents She has Received from Love,' 'Diana and Endymion,' 'Aurora Triumphs over Night' and 'The Sacrifice of Callirhoë,' the first version of his triumphant 'Callirhoë' canvas at the Salon of 1765.

The brilliance of these works explains why Fragonard's admirers were bewildered when he turned away from institutional art and, as one commentator put it, became 'content to shine nowadays in boudoirs and dressing rooms.' The fashionable author Madame d'Épinay was even more forthright, writing to a friend: 'M. Fragonard? He wastes his time and his talent: He makes money.'

These intimate scenes were not only lucrative but, as seen in the next section of the show, they also clearly suited Fragonard's skills and temperament.

The mid-18th century was the heyday of the illustrated French erotic and pornographic novel, with such works as 'Thérèse Philosophe' (1748) and 'Margot la Ravaudeuse,' or 'Margot the Stockingmender' (1750), and the publication of an illustrated edition of Jean de la Fontaine's earlier licentious 'Contes,' or Tales, fueling demand for graphic images of a similar nature. But, as Mr. Faroult points out in the catalog, the term 'érotique,' as then defined, covered a wide range of meanings, from the amorous to the plainly sexual.

Despite the come-on of the exhibition's subtitle, 'Suitor and Libertine,' the show and catalog make clear that Fragonard seems to have been an exemplary family man — devoted to his wife, herself a distinguished miniaturist, and their children. His reputation as a sexual adventurer apparently was an invention of his 19th-century biographers, who mistook the art for the man.

Starting in 1765, Fragonard shared a studio for a time with Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, who was a potent influence on Fragonard's works in the 'erotic' genre (though Baudouin's works manifest more pornographic tendencies). In comparison, Fragonard reveals himself the master of theatrical suggestiveness, often hiding his subjects' nakedness in billowing drapery and bed linen.

In a section called 'Dangerous Reading,' Baudouin's gouache 'The Reader' shows a well-to-do young woman in her boudoir, erotically moved by the book she is reading. Fragonard, in 'Le billet doux,' provides a more subtle image of juvenile excitement: a young girl, having received a love letter, glancing over her shoulder as if to check that she is not being observed.

The last sections of the exhibition — 'The Revival of the 'Fête Galante,'' 'Love Moralized,' 'Heroic Passion' and 'Romantic Allegory' — trace a progressive shift in tastes from the 1770s onward, as libertine fashions that threatened to divorce sex from finer feelings of love declined, in the realms of art at least.

Fragonard's beautifully colorful pastoral canvases, 'The Pursuit' and 'The Surprise,' while not lacking in erotic fizz, depict a more innocent world. And his 'Isle of Love' and 'A Game of Hot Cockles' represent a nostalgic return to the sophisticated galantries of Watteau's world. Even the passionate bedroom scene of 'Le Verrou' (The Bolt) was to be followed by a painting of the same couple regularizing their relationship in 'The Contract,' represented here by an engraving.

The artist's last canvases from the 1780s that conclude the show — 'The Vow of Love' and 'The Oath of Love' — depict a romantic, almost visionary earnestness, as the couples prepare themselves, in the words of the English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for 'the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise longue.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024