In this scene evocative of the Middle Ages, monks process into a Gothic crypt bearing a corpse in an open casket. At the moment they enter the stagelike space, their brethren, having opened a tomb to receive the body, discover that it is already occupied, sparking a dramatic stir. The precise literary source for this composition, believed to date to the 1820s, continues to elude scholars, but the ghoulish scenario was a staple for Fragonard and his contemporaries. The painter is today overshadowed by his father, Jean Honoré Fragonard, but he was one of the most versatile and sought-after artists of his generation.
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Credit Line:The Whitney Collection, Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003
In this scene, monks process into a Gothic crypt bearing a weathered corpse in an open casket. Other members of their order, having opened the tomb to receive it, discover a recently dead body, prompting commotion. There is general agreement that the painting dates to the 1820s, a time when Romantic painters actively sought inspiration for their pictures in popular literature, and that, given the specificity of the action, the painting depicts an episode from a Gothic novel of the period (see Noon 2002; Rébecca Duffeix, email, May 5, 2011, Department of European Paintings files). By contrast, one scholar has suggested that the painting may be inspired by such texts without being based on a specific one (Beth S. Wright, email, November 19, 2011). Whatever the case, the underlying narrative remains unidentified.
Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard—son of Jean Honoré Fragonard—contributed prolifically to this trend. Similar subjects in his oeuvre include Vivant Denon Returning the Bones of El Cid to His Tomb, 1809 (Musée Antoine Lécuyer, Saint-Quentin; see Jacques Foucart in French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution, exh. cat., Grand Palais, Paris, and elsewhere, Detroit, 1975, pp. 413–15, no. 57, ill. p. 218 ) and The Trapped Lovers (Musée du Louvre, Paris; see Esther Bell in Louis-Antoine Prat and Jennifer Tonkovich et al., David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre, exh. cat., Morgan Library and Museum, New York, 2011, pp. 88–89, no. 34, ill.). The artist’s livre de raison lists two other such subjects, "le tombeau d’eusthene le phisionomiste" and "la mort de diego de Colmenares" (Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. RF 52597 verso).
Noon (2002) has identified Fragonard’s lithograph Ruins of the Great Church of Saint-Wandrille Abbey, 1820, as a possibly related work. (It was published in baron Taylor et al., Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France, vols. 1–2 [Ancienne Normandie], Paris, 1820–25, pl. 23; see Laure Dolan in Lucie Goujard et al., Voyages pittoresques: Normandie 1820–2009, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, and elsewhere, Milan, 2009, p. 163, no. I-1-11, ill.)
Asher Ethan Miller 2013
Inscription: Signed (lower right): A. fragonard
sale, Christie's, London, May 22, 1981, no. 81, as "The Burial of a Saint," to Whitney; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1981)
London. Tate Britain. "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism," February 5–May 11, 2003, no. 69 (as "Burial of a Monk," lent by Wheelock Whitney, New York).
Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism," June 8–September 7, 2003, no. 69.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism," October 7, 2003–January 4, 2004, no. 69.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 60).
Patrick Noon in Patrick Noon. Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism. Exh. cat., Tate Britain. London, 2003, p. 141, no. 69, ill. (color), dates it about 1820; states that the painting might be related to a lithograph by Fragonard ["Ruines de la grande église de l'abbaye de Saint-Wandrille," published in Baron Taylor, Charles Nodier, and Alphonse de Cailleux, "Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l'ancienne France," vol. 1, "Ancienne Normandie (part 1)," Paris, 1820, pl. 23]; speculates that the subject derives from a yet to be identified literary source.
Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), p. 46, fig. 60 (color).
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