Fragonard, Jean-Honoré (1732–1806)
FRAGONARD, JEAN-HONORÉ (1732–1806)
FRAGONARD, JEAN-HONORÉ (1732–1806), French painter of the rococo period. Fragonard was born in Grasse, a Provençal town near the Mediterranean, where his father was a glove maker or merchant. The family is most likely of Italian origin and was composed primarily of artisans. They appear to have moved to Paris when Fragonard was six, possibly because of a lawsuit, although no documents confirm its nature. According to his grandson, Théophile Fragonard, he was first a notary's clerk, but was dismissed because he drew constantly. His mother took him to see François Boucher (1703–1770), who sent him away because he did not yet know how to paint. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), however, appreciated Fragonard's sense of color, accepting him as an apprentice and letting him paint immediately. He worked with Chardin for six months and then returned to Boucher's studio.
Fragonard's first recorded presence in Boucher's studio is 18 May 1753; however, he won the Grand Prix in 1752, so he must have been there as early as 1749 or 1750. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Fragonard's nineteenth-century biographers, report that even though he had never studied at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, he was allowed to compete for the Grand Prix as Boucher's pupil. In 1753 Fragonard entered the newly established École Royale des Élèves Protégés (under the direction of Carle Van Loo) where he received training in art theory and technique as well as lessons in history and the liberal arts. He left for the French Academy in Rome in October of 1756, remaining there until 1761.
While Fragonard copied Old Master paintings and ancient sculpture as directed, his landscape drawings made during this period had a greater impact on the future course of his career. He spent a great deal of time sketching the gardens of Tivoli and the Villa d'Este, often alongside Hubert Robert, invited by an important patron of the arts, the abbé de Saint-Non. His drawings of this period are marked by their virtuoso execution and strength of viewpoint. The delicate handling of chalk and dramatic framing effects of his Avenue of Cypress Trees (Musée des Beaux-arts et d'Archeologie, Besançon) is just one example.
In 1765 Fragonard presented his morceau d'agrément (acceptance piece) to the Académie Royale—the much celebrated High Priest Coresus Sacrifices Himself to Save Callirhoë (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Art critics such as Denis Diderot lauded Fragonard as the future strength of the French school; yet they were sorely disappointed at the following salon when he failed to submit history paintings of similar strengths. Various sources claimed that Fragonard had sold out and was working primarily on boudoir paintings. One such work is Happy Hazards of the Swing (1767; Wallace Collection, London), apparently painted on commission for a gentleman of court who wanted his mistress to be the subject of the scene. This delightful easel painting firmly positioned Fragonard as the leading artist of the last generation of rococo painters, heir to Boucher and Antoine Watteau.
For most of his career, Fragonard worked for private patrons who could pay him well. He demonstrated a tremendous capacity to change his style at will and worked in all the genres with equal facility. Many of his paintings were cabinet pictures, but he also received commissions for large-scale decorative cycles, although not all of these pleased his patrons. Most famously, the Louveciennes panels painted for Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry, were rejected and replaced by a series painted by Joseph-Marie Vien, who worked in a more neoclassical style. These paintings (now in the Frick Collection, New York) have been the subject of numerous and often conflicting analyses. Critics and scholars are in agreement, however, in their assessment of Fragonard's talents with the brush. The bravura that marks his so-called fantasy portraits has long been considered evidence of artistic genius, and such works were no doubt executed—reportedly in under an hour—to give this impression to the beholder.
Fragonard's impact on the late rococo lies in his reinterpretation of the fête galante and pastoral imagery of the previous two generations. His interest in picturesque effects took rococo landscape in new directions based largely on principles of opposition and escape. Some scholars have credited this change to Fragonard's study of nature during a second journey to Italy in 1773 and 1774, traveling in the company Pierre-Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt, a fermier général (tax farmer) whom he had known for ten years. He made drawings exclusively during this trip, which are characterized by his use of bistre wash and which show his fascination with light effects. It is this interest in using light to convey atmosphere and emotion that altered his approach to painting.
Fragonard's late works respond to the polish of neoclassicism. They are more controlled, less physically energized, but profoundly emotive. The tenor of these works, such as The Bolt (c. 1778; Louvre), relies on the tension of line, refined surface textures, and strong use of chiaroscuro. This is the period in which Fragonard began to work with his niece, Marguerite Gerard. Considerable confusion exists over the authorship of late works like The Stolen Kiss (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), but recent research suggests that there was a genuine collaboration between master and student, each taking up parts of the canvas. They also executed numerous prints together.
The young Jacques-Louis David took a great deal of interest in Fragonard; his early works were clearly influenced by the compositions and techniques of the rococo master. During the 1790s, when revolutionary events all but prevented Fragonard from continuing to paint, David helped to secure positions for him as a curator and administrator. While commissions and sales were essentially nonexistent in these turbulent years, Fragonard was not excluded from working within the existing institutions of art. He played an essential role in founding what is now the Louvre. Between 1792 and 1797, he was one of six members of the Commission du Muséum Central, a body that oversaw every aspect of the new museum. In 1805 Fragonard was given a pension for life by the state, although he died less than a year later, on 22 August 1806.
The rococo fell out of favor during the first half of the nineteenth century. Not until the Goncourt brothers completed their biographies of important eighteenth-century artists would attention turn once again to the painterly magnificence of Fragonard's works. The impressionists, particularly Pierre-Auguste Renoir, were among those most influenced by his use of color and his technique. Subjects that we most strongly associate with Fragonard and the rococo, like women on swings, were also revived at that time.
See also Art: Artistic Patronage ; Boucher, François ; Chardin, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon ; David, Jacques-Louis ; Rococo .
Ashton, Dore. Fragonard in the Universe of Painting. Washington, D.C., 1988.
Cuzin, Jean Pierre. Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Life and Work. New York, 1988.
Rosenberg, Pierre. Fragonard. Exh. cat. New York, 1988.
Sheriff, Mary D. Fragonard: Art and Eroticism. Chicago and London, 1990.
Wildenstein, Georges. The Paintings of Fragonard. London, 1960. Also published in French, 1960.
Jennifer D. Milam