The work of the French painter Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) constitutes the final expression of the rococo style. He was famous for the fluid grace and sensuous charm of his paintings and for the virtuosity of his technique.
Jean Honoré Fragonard was born in Grasse on April 5, 1732; about 1738 his family moved to Paris. In 1747-1748 the young Fragonard worked as an apprentice in the studio of Jean Baptiste Chardin. In 1748 Fragonard began studying with François Boucher, and in 1752 Fragonard won the Prix de Rome, a prize awarded by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture to allow promising artists to study at the French Academy in Rome. Between 1752 and 1756 he studied in Paris at the École des Élèves Protégés, a special school that educated young artists for work in Italy.
In 1756 Fragonard left for Rome, and he remained in Italy until 1761. His career at the French Academy in Rome was not particularly successful, and his professors were displeased with him. He turned to drawing and to making landscape sketches, and during 1760 and 1761 he traveled about Italy making numerous romantic drawings of great gardens and the Italian countryside.
After his return to France in 1761 Fragonard occupied himself primarily with painting decorative landscapes; some were based on his Italian drawings, some were derived from the Dutch landscape of the 17th century, and others were in the popular 18th-century "pastoral" taste, that is, imaginary landscapes with shepherds and shepherdesses. These paintings were successful, but he was not accepted as an important professional artist until he was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1765 on the basis of a serious history painting which was not typical of either his taste or his temperament.
The rococo style in painting, which was established in France by Antoine Watteau in the early 18th century and which Fragonard exemplified so brilliantly, was aristocratic in nature, sensuous, intimate, and designed to provide pleasure; stylistically it depended upon soft, luminous colors, complex surfaces, refined textural contrasts, free brushwork, and asymmetrical compositions based upon the interplay of curved lines and masses. Produced for highly sophisticated patrons, rococo painting concentrated on aristocratic diversions, the game of love, decorative portraits, mythological and allegorical themes frequently treated in a playful manner, and idyllic pastoral scenes.
Between 1765 and 1770 Fragonard executed several portraits in which the sitters wear fanciful costumes, and many paintings of an erotic or suggestive nature. These works are characterized by the easy facility of his technique, rapid and delicate brushwork, glowing colors, a silvery or golden tonality of atmosphere, and an exuberant gaiety of mood. An excellent example of his painting from this period, and one which may be regarded as typical of the work usually associated with him, is The Swing. This scene depicts a lady in a pink dress seated on a swing on which she floats through the air, her skirts billowing, while a hidden gentleman observes from a thicket of bushes; the landscape setting emphasizes a bluish, smoky atmosphere, foaming clouds, and foliage sparkling with flickering light.
Pictures like The Swing brought Fragonard harsh criticism from Denis Diderot, a leading philosopher of the Enlightenment. Diderot charged the artist with frivolity and admonished him to have "a little more self-respect." By 1765, indeed, the rococo style was under critical attack, had entered its last phase, and was gradually being replaced by a return to the relative severity of the art of antiquity.
Fragonard, however, was unaffected either by criticism or by the encroaching neoclassicism. His work continued to be in demand, and during the early 1770s he received many commissions both from the royal government and from private persons. One of his most important patrons was the Comtesse du Barry, Louis XV's mistress, who commissioned several decorative paintings for Louveciennes, her château near Paris. The most famous paintings done for her comprise a set of four panels entitled Loves of the Shepherds (now in Frick Collection, New York); they show a pair of elegantly dressed lovers in a parklike setting and have titles which are self-explanatory: Storming the Citadel, The Pursuit, The Declaration of Love, and The Lover Crowned.
In 1773 Fragonard made a second trip to Italy, one which lasted for a year. He painted some of his finest landscapes in 1775; the best of these, such as the Fête at Saint-Cloud, have a fantasy quality in which people are dwarfed into insignificance and the compositions are dominated by great fluffy green and golden trees melting into surging clouds. From about 1776 on Fragonard painted young girls reading, allegorical works on the theme of love, portraits, and rather sentimental genre scenes of family life. After about 1784 his production became relatively limited.
Fragonard's work was closely associated with the ancien régime in France, but he managed to make a successful personal adjustment to the French Revolution of 1789. His royal and aristocratic patrons were swept away in the political and social upheaval of the Revolution. He fled to his native Provence in 1790, but in 1791 he was back in Paris. From 1794 to 1797 he helped to create and administer the new National Museum, established by the Revolutionary government in the palace of the Louvre; in 1799 he was dismissed from his museum position. He died in Paris on Aug. 22, 1806.
The most important work on Fragonard is Georges Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard (trans. 1960), a fully illustrated biography with a complete catalog of his work. An interesting evaluation of Fragonard's work within the context of 18th-century painting is presented in Michael Levey, Rococo to Revolution (1966). References to Fragonard can be found in Arno Schönberger and Halldor Soehner, The Rococo Age (1960), a handsomely illustrated work dealing with many facets of 18th-century culture.
Thuillier, Jacques, Fragonard, Geneva, Switzerland: Skira; New York: Rizzoli, 1987.
Massengale, Jean Montague, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993. □