Fragonard, Jean-Honoré

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Fragonard, Jean-Honoré (1732-1806): French, Painter.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was the last great artist working in the Rococo style. The virtuosity and abstract painterliness of his brushwork would not be rivaled for nearly one hundred years.

Fragonard was born to a family of craftsmen and merchants in Grasse, France. When he was a child, his family moved to Paris and at about the age of seventeen, he began his association with Boucher, François, who welcomed him as a student without charging his family. Fragonard was Boucher's most famous pupil and learned to paint with a skill that surpassed that of his master.

Fragonard was eager to become part of the official art establishment. Through his association with Boucher, he was permitted to exhibit in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the government sponsored institution for the instruction of artists and the perpetuation of the officially sanctioned style. He exhibited subjects in history painting, the most highly esteemed category among its members. Early successes led Diderot, Denis to express the hope that his art would restore the country's moral fiber.

Fragonard was not to choose the official path, however. By 1766, he shifted his interest to less serious subjects, such as landscapes, genre scenes and pastoral genre scenes. The latter, an invention of Boucher, were representations of shepherds and shepherdesses in idyllic settings. All of these subjects appealed to the wealthy middle class and the aristocracy and offered him lucrative private commissions. An early example of his pastoral genre scenes is Blindman's Bluff, dated 1753-56, in which a shepherd and shepherdess play, surrounded by lush vegetation, symbols of their budding passions.

In 1767, and clearly under the influence of Boucher, he painted The Bathers, depicting several voluptuous female nudes frolicking in a stream surrounded by verdant foliage. That same year, Fragonard received a commission from the Baron de Saint-Julien to paint The Swing. Set in a rich landscape, an aristocratic young woman, identified as the patron's mistress, is being pushed on a swing by a bishop. Facing her, lying on the ground, is her lover; she kicks up her leg, lifting her skirts and tossing him her shoe, symbolizing the sexual favors she bestowed upon him.

The eroticism of Fragonard's subjects was particularly appealing to the aristocracy. Fragonard also painted domestic scenes which conveyed more respectable messages. In The Visit to the Nursery, 1770-75, a mother and father embrace as they admire their new born baby while their other children look on. Reverence toward children was encouraged by Diderot, and this work also glorified sacred, parental responsibility.

Among his most famous decorative paintings are those commissioned by King Louis XV's last official mistress, Mme du Barry. The series of four large panels, called Progress of Love were painted between 1771 and 1773. Individually they are titled The Meeting, The Pursuit, The Lover Crowned and Love Letters and portray couples meeting and embracing in a park. After they were installed, du Barry refused them. Her reason was never explained; perhaps the changing taste toward the Neo-Classical style led her to refuse the outdated Rococo works, or their representation of sexual escapades may have referred too openly to her licentious life style.

Fragonard invented a new kind of portraiture in 1768, called figure de fantaisie, which shows the vivacity of his brushwork best. This group of portraits of men and women, of which fifteen survive, shows the figure to the waist and includes both known individuals and anonymous personality types, often symbolizing professions. The Fantasy Figure in Blue, painted in 1769, shows the figure in an active pose, twisting and looking out beyond the viewer. His paint application captured the vital essence of the person and introduced a modern, interpretive approach to the portrait. Figures de fantaisie were in actuality executed very rapidly, in some cases within an hour.

Despite Fragonard's success and popularity, by the 1770s, tastes had changed. Soon after completing the Progress of Love, an anonymous writer attacked Fragonard so violently in the pamphlet, “Dialogues on Painting,” the despondent artist left Paris for two years. Diderot also turned against him expressing his disappointment with Fragonard's trivial subjects.

Despite his waning popularity, Fragonard survived the French Revolution, and in fact, under the protection of David, Jacques-Louis, was assigned the duty of overseeing the creation of the Louvre Palace as a national museum and in 1795, was named president of the Conservatory of the Arts. He lived the remainder of his life on a modest pension. By the middle of the nineteenth century, he was acknowledged a master of pure form and paint application and later, a major influence on the Impressionists.

Further Reading:

Jacques Thuillier, Fragonard, 1987.

Dora Ashton, Fragonard in the Universe of Painting, 1988.

Mary D. Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism, 1990.


Lynne Lokensgard

Lamar University

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