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The Artistic Heritage of Modena: Wounded Art


The Happy Mother

Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, Grasse 1732–1806 Paris)

ca. 1760
Oil on canvas
19 1/4 x 23 3/8 in. (48.9 x 59.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1946
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    Rather few eighteenth-century French artists would have painted a laundry, which is evidently what we see here (Chardin would be the significant exception).

    This genre scenes dates to about 1760, toward the end of Fragonard's first trip to Italy, or shortly after his return to France. His impetuous technique falls between the usual stages of preparatory sketch and finished work. The surface has suffered some wear and damage, but the central figure group is intact. Fragonard paints the chaotic domestic interior with warmth and feeling.

  • Catalogue Entry

    Both Fragonard and Hubert Robert were fascinated by the unrestored ancient ruins of Rome in which boarded off interior spaces were used for stables and laundries. People lived in the ruins too, as this painting and others appear to demonstrate. The picture is first recorded in 1884, in the catalogue of a public auction, as the interior of an Italian house; in 1955, it was retitled The Italian Family. Neither is accurate, as the building is not a house and the figures are too many and not of the right ages for a family group. The enormously high columns and stone platform, as well as an antique altar in the right foreground, indicate an ancient structure that has been adapted to a practical day to day use. The figures include two infants, one in a cradle, three little girls, and several young women. Clearly, at least two of the latter are laundresses.

    Other paintings and drawings by the two artists show cavernous interiors with peasants tending cauldrons of boiling linen. The evaporating moisture rises in clouds while the women and girls spread out the laundry or hang it up to dry. The tenebrous lighting must in part reflect sights Fragonard saw in Rome. The influence of Rembrandt and other northern artists, of Neapolitan painting, and of the Bolognese school have also been suggested. While the date proposed for the painting is very likely, it is not certain that all the works by Fragonard that depict subjects of the kind were painted in Italy. The title, The Happy Mother, associates this one with a similar painting (private collection) in which the central figure, also brilliantly illuminated, holds two babies in her arms.

    Whatever the setting or implied narrative, the young mother in the yellow skirt and her baby wrapped in white, fixed in a blaze of light, are the real subject. Fragonard’s wide, viscous strokes convey their warmth and corporeality, and the physical intimacy between them. The brown dog and the white cat impart an echo of domestic harmony.


  • Provenance

    private collection (until 1884; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 12, 1884, no. 21, as "Intérieur de maison italienne," for Fr 850); Georges Moreau-Chaslon, Paris ( in 1889); ?Charles Edward Haviland, Paris; [Jacques Seligmann, Paris, until 1917; sold to Knoedler]; [Knoedler, Paris and New York, 1917–at least 1918]; ?Alfred Löwenstein, Brussels (d. 1928); [Partridge Fine Art, London, by 1939–at least 1940]; [Howard Back, New York, until 1946; sold to MMA]

  • Exhibition History

    New York. Knoedler. "Masters of the Loaded Brush: Oil Sketches from Rubens to Tiepolo," April 4–29, 1967, no. 69.

    Yokohama Museum of Art. "Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: French Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century," March 25–June 4, 1989, no. 46.

    Rome. Villa Medici. "J. H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Roma," December 6, 1990–February 24, 1991, no. 38.

    Athens. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. "From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," December 13, 1992–April 11, 1993, no. 28.

  • References

    Roger Portalis. Honoré Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1889, vol. 2, p. 279, as "Intérieur rustique italien," with Moreau-Chaslon.

    Charles Sterling. "XV–XVIII Centuries." The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 152–53, ill., as "The Italian Family"; finds it close to the "Washerwomen" in the City Art Museum, St. Louis; notes that before Fragonard went to Italy he copied Rembrandt's Holy Family in the Crozat collection, Paris; dates our picture after his first trip between 1761 and 1764, and sees in it the influence of Piazzetta, Johann Liss, and Pietro da Cortona.

    Louis Réau. Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre. Brussels, 1956, pp. 168, 270.

    Georges Wildenstein. The Paintings of Fragonard, Complete Edition. London, 1960, pp. 24, 279, no. 365, pl. 73, groups it with pictures made during the second Italian journey, 1773 to 1776; notes that towards the end of 1774 Fragonard painted "a dozen pictures" on a single theme, "The Washerwomen" or "The Village Interior"; detects "the influence of someone asking for saleable pictures and for variants which Fragonard himself would, perhaps, not have painted"; publishes two others, which he calls "Village Interior or The Happy Mother," one formerly with the marquis de Ganay, Paris (no. 364), the other formerly with the marquis de Larios, Madrid (no. 363).

    Carla Lord in Masters of the Loaded Brush. Exh. cat., M. Knoedler & Co. New York, 1967, pp. 94–95, no. 69, ill., due to its lack of finish, judges our picture to be the first of three versions, identifying the others as Wildenstein nos. 363 and 364; agrees that the artist may have been inspired by Rembrandt's Holy Family, and also by Crespi's family groups, which he would have seen in Bologna in 1761; places it probably after Fragonard's first trip to Italy.

    Jacques Thuillier. Fragonard. English ed. Geneva, 1967, p. 49, notes that such typically Italian subjects as this "must date from Fragonard's first stay in Rome . . . though to please art lovers he may have done replicas of some of them in Paris".

    Gabriele Mandel in L'opera completa di Fragonard. Milan, 1972, pp. 102–3, no. 388, ill., lists it with works from Fragonard's second trip to Italy, and identifies it as probably a preliminary study for Wildenstein nos. 364 and 363.

    Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 364, fig. 660, dates it ca. 1760?.

    Denys Sutton. Fragonard. Exh. cat., National Museum of Western Art. Tokyo, 1980, unpaginated, discussed under no. 55, refers to it as "certainly the freest of the three" and perhaps his first idea for the subject.

    Eric M. Zafran. The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, pp. 116–17, discusses it in relation to the painting of Washerwomen in Saint Louis, dating these works shortly after Fragonard's visit to Venice in 1761.

    Pierre Cabanne. Fragonard. Paris, 1987, p. 109, describes the improvised, "Impressionistic" quality of the picture.

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin. Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Vie et oeuvre, catalogue complet des peintures. Fribourg, Switzerland, 1987, p. 273, no. 74, ill. p. 273 and fig. 60, dates it about 1759–60.

    Pierre Rosenberg. Fragonard. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1988, p. 92, fig. 2, as "The Happy Mother"; compares it to the similar painting in a private collection, Paris [Wildenstein no. 364]; notes that although it is more sketchy and improvised, the condition makes it difficult to tell whether or not it is earlier; notes that the relining of the MMA picture "crushed" Fragonard's impasto, but that the Paris version is in perfect state; dates both to about 1760; illustrates the other version of Wildenstein no. 364 as "Attributed to Fragonard".

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Pierre Rosenberg in J. H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Roma. Exh. cat., Villa Medici. Rome, 1990, pp. 29, 91–92, no. 38, ill., identify two versions as by Fragonard, the present picture and Wildenstein no. 364; describe Wildenstein no. 363 as of doubtful authenticity.

    Ewa Lajer-Burcharth. "Fragonard in Detail." Differences 14 (Fall 2003), pp. 51–52, fig. 14, describes the erotic nature of Fragonard's vision.

    Ewa Lajer-Burcharth. "Genre and Sex." French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century. Washington, 2007, pp. 204–5, 207–10, fig. 10, argues for the organic, generative nature of Fragonard's depiction of the subject.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History