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 Met's picture should be associated 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.
[Katharine Baetjer 2011]
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 1924]; ?Alfred Löwenstein, Brussels (d. 1928); ?[Partridge Fine Art, London, by 1939–at least 1940]; [Howard Back, New York, until 1946; sold to MMA]
Roger Portalis. Honoré Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1889, vol. 2, p. 279, as "Intérieur rustique italien," with G. Moreau-Chaslon.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 152–53, ill., as “The Italian Family”; notes Fragonard’s connection with Robert in Rome; dates our picture between 1761 and 1764 and finds it close to the “Washerwomen” in St. Louis; suggests the influence of Rembrandt--noting that Fragonard had copied that artist’s “Holy Family” in the Crozat collection before he went to Italy—and perhaps also of Pietro da Cortona, Piazzetta, and Johann Liss.
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, lists it with Italian subjects dating to about 1774; adds to the group two related works, formerly with the marquis de Larios (no. 363) and formerly with the marquis de Ganay (no. 364).
Jacques Thuillier. Fragonard. English ed. Geneva, 1967, p. 49, believes that paintings with such typically Italian subject matter must date to the artist’s first stay in Rome, but that there may be later replicas.
Carla Lord in Masters of the Loaded Brush. Exh. cat., M. Knoedler & Co. New York, 1967, pp. 94–95, no. 69, ill., judges our picture to be the first of the three versions mentioned by Wildenstein, and dates them after Fragonard’s first trip to Italy; suggests the possible influence of Crespi’s family groups, which the artist could have seen in Bologna in 1761.
Gabriele Mandel in L'opera completa di Fragonard. Milan, 1972, pp. 102–3, no. 388, ill., as from Fragonard’s second trip to Italy, and probably preliminary to Wildenstein nos. 363–64.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 364, fig. 660, dates it about 1760?.
Denys Sutton. Fragonard. Exh. cat., National Museum of Western Art. Tokyo, 1980, unpaginated, under no. 55, refers to it as "the freest of the three" and perhaps his first idea.
Eric M. Zafran. The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, pp. 116–17, under no. 51, discusses it in relation to the painting in St. Louis, dating the works shortly after Fragonard's visit to Venice in 1761.
Pierre Cabanne. Fragonard. Paris, 1987, p. 109.
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, together with the paintings in St. Louis and Rouen, dates it about 1759–60.
Pierre Rosenberg. Fragonard. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1988, p. 92, under no. 23, fig. 2 [French ed., 1987, as "L'heureuse mère"], as "The Happy Mother"; compares it to the painting in a private collection, Paris [Wildenstein no. 364]; notes that while The Met's canvas is sketchier, the damaged condition makes it difficult to tell whether or not it is earlier, while the Paris version is in perfect state; dates both to about 1760; illustrates Wildenstein no. 363 as "Attributed to Fragonard".
Pierre Rosenberg. Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard. Paris, 1989, pp. 78–79, no. 79, ill.
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, while describing no. 363 as of doubtful authenticity.
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth. "Fragonard in Detail." Differences 14 (Fall 2003), pp. 51–52, fig. 14, addresses the erotic nature of Fragonard's vision.
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth. "Genre and Sex." French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Philip Conisbee. Washington, 2007, pp. 204–5, 207–10, fig. 10, argues for the organic, generative nature of the depiction.
Old Masters. Christie's, New York. April 27, 2017, unpaginated, under no. 36, as "The Happy Mother".