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The Dream of Fragonard

Ink and wash drawing of a man in 18th-century dress sitting at a desk and surrounded by figments of his imagination

Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806). The Inspiration of the Artist, ca. 1761–73. Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over black chalk underdrawing, 9 1/16 x 13 3/4 in. (23 x 34.9 cm). Private collection

Among the many riches now on view in the exhibition Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant—Works from New York Collections is an ink and wash drawing entitled The Inspiration of the Artist, which depicts a man in 18th-century attire leaning back in his chair and covering his eyes with his hand. Deprived of sight in the conventional sense, he succumbs to the power of his internal visions as forms conjured by his imagination swirl around him.

Putti, doves, and owls pop out from the clouds here and there, illuminated by bursts of golden sunlight. A sphinx at lower left has the body of a woman with the paws of a cat, the tail of a fish, and the wings of a bird. At upper right, a winged figure holding a palette and brushes extends an arm toward the seated man, suggesting the subject as an evocation of artistic inspiration. Opposite, a jester and a figure with a cow (possibly Saint Luke, the patron saint of painters) reinforce the theme. Only the plump cat, perched in the foreground and gazing directly at the viewer, seems to share the earthbound space of the protagonist.

Detail view of The Inspiration of the Artist

The table before him is draped in some kind of tasseled rug or fabric. A portfolio propped at an angle against two books supports a piece of paper. In the artist's left hand he holds what must be a drawing tool—either a pen or a brush. We sense that he is suffering not from writer's block, but from an overabundance of imagination. Are we seeing an artist inspired, or an artist tormented?

This sheet, which can be read as an allegorical self-portrait, was made at a critical moment in the artist's career. Judging by its style, it would seem to date from the early 1760s, when Fragonard was feeling pressure to create the major history paintings that would enable him to gain entry into the Académie royale, the most prestigious artistic institution of the French ancien régime. At the same time, another path beckoned—one where he could work for a small circle of enlightened collectors and pursue with greater freedom the techniques and subjects that appealed to him.

Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806). Rinaldo in the Enchanted Forest, ca. 1763. Brown wash over very light black chalk underdrawing, 13 3/16 x 18 in. (33.5 x 45.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest; Guy Wildenstein Gift; The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund; Kristin Gary Fine Art Gift; and funds from various donors, 2009 (2009.236)

Hanging alongside this work on the walls of the exhibition is The Met's drawing of Rinaldo in the Enchanted Forest, which illustrates an episode from Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, published in 1581. In this fictionalized account of the First Crusade (1095–99), Rinaldo, a Christian knight en route to the Holy Land, battles enchanted creatures to free himself from the spell of the pagan enchantress Armida. One can imagine that the sphinx at lower left and the winged figure in the sky have leapt from the image of the artist's inspiration and directly onto this neighboring sheet, where we appreciate them as marvels of Fragonard's fertile imagination.

A recently rediscovered drawing that was added to the exhibition after the catalogue was already in print, The Inspiration of the Artist provides viewers with insight into Fragonard's own artistic process as he faced an important fork in the road of his career. Be sure to visit the exhibition to see the choice he made.

Related Link
Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant—Works from New York Collections, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 8, 2017

Related Event
Conversation with a Curator—Jean Honoré Fragonard's The Little Park
Thursday, November 3, 11–11:30 am
The Met Fifth Avenue - Gallery 691
Free with Museum admission

Department: Drawings and Prints

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