Embodying the freedom and curiosity of the French Enlightenment, Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) developed an exuberant and fluid manner as a painter, draftsman, and printmaker. Prolific and inventive, he abandoned early on the conventional career path dictated by the hierarchical structure of the Royal Academy, working largely for private patrons. His work constitutes a further elaboration of the Rococo idiom established by Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, a manner perfectly suited to his subjects, which favored the playful, the erotic, and the joys of domesticity.
Early Training in Paris and Italy
Born in the Provençal city of Grasse, Fragonard moved with his family to Paris in 1738. He spent some time in the busy studio of François Boucher before successfully competing for the Prix de Rome in 1752. He then pursued studies at the École Royale des Élèves Protégés in Paris, following the standard training for a history painter.
In 1756, Fragonard was sent to Italy as a pensioner of the crown; he remained at the French Academy in Rome until 1761. From the numerous black chalk copies he executed there, it is clear that he held masters of the Baroque in the highest esteem, copying works in Rome, Naples, and Venice. Many, such as Saint Celestine V Renouncing the Papacy (1987.239), were made with eventual publication as prints in mind. He also produced brilliant red chalk drawings of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli and painted small cabinet-size paintings for French private collectors living in Rome. The Stolen Kiss (56.100.1) was painted for the bailiff of Breteuil, French ambassador to the Order of Malta in Rome. As in the pastorals of his former master Boucher, Fragonard’s rustic protagonists are envisioned with billowing silk clothing, engaged in amorous pursuits.
Official and Commercial Success
Back in Paris in 1761, Fragonard found an eager market for his cabinet pictures, which melded the influences of Italian Baroque painting and seventeenth-century Dutch landscape. The spectacular critical success of Coresus and Callirhoë (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which he submitted to the Royal Academy in 1765, led to high hopes that he would be the salvation of history painting in France. However, it was a promise he chose not to fulfill, neglecting royal commissions in favor of work for private collectors.
During this period, he further developed the painterly surface of his canvases, working with great rapidity and little blending, giving pictorial form to the qualities of “fire” and “genius” so admired by contemporary collectors. Woman with a Dog (37.118) is related to an inventive series of virtuoso imaginary portraits referred to collectively as the Figures de fantaisie. They feature archaic costumes, often vaguely Spanish or Rubensian in inspiration, and brushwork so rapid and undisguised that it would have previously been associated with oil sketches rather than finished works.
Similar achievements can be cited in the realm of drawing. A Gathering at Wood’s Edge (1995.101), like many sheets Fragonard made for the increasingly active collector’s market, is not a study for a painting, but a finished work of art on paper. In its unhesitating technique and varied range of graphic notation, it is testimony to Fragonard’s unmatched mastery of the red chalk medium and to his endearing vision of nature as welcoming and wondrous.
Fragonard’s masterpiece of this period is the series of large panel paintings commissioned by Madame du Barry, the official mistress of Louis XV, for the château de Louveciennes (The Lover Crowned, The Frick Collection, New York). While the iconography of the series continues to be debated by scholars, the subjects can generally be described as lovers in various stages of romantic involvement in lush, overgrown gardens full of mythological statuary, potted plants, and cascading flowers. A dispute with the patron led to the paintings being returned to the artist and replaced by a more Neoclassical series by Joseph Marie Vien (1716–1809).
Shortly after the disappointment of Madame du Barry’s rejection of the Louveciennes panels, Fragonard agreed to embark on a second trip to Italy (1773–74) as artistic companion to Pierre-Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt, a wealthy fermier général. A great many drawings are associated with this trip, their style quite distinct from those Fragonard made on his first trip. Seated Man Reading (1978.516.1) probably belongs to a series of informal red chalk portraits Fragonard drew of Bergeret’s friends and acquaintances along the way. A Fisherman Pulling a Net and A Fisherman Leaning on an Oar (2006.353.1) must have been made during the two months the party spent in Naples in the spring of 1774. He also adopted at this time the technique of brush and brown wash, which he employed with a freedom and facility paralleling his oil paintings of the 1760s.
After his return to France, Fragonard made various attempts to remake his style in the newly popular Neoclassical manner with its planar compositions and smooth surfaces, although the tide of changing taste was ultimately too strong for him. After the French Revolution, he held administrative positions at the Louvre, but his work had fallen from favor and he died in relative obscurity in 1806.