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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 21 NOVEMBER 2015 — The Luxembourg Museum is currently hosting a superb exhibition of the 18th century French painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), entitled Fragonard in Love. It aims to present love in the artist’s works as it evolved through the decades, with the popularity of libidinous works fading as the century drew to a close. It is less an exhibition of Fragonard’s personal life which he kept highly private, as an exhibition revealing love in all its aspects, reflected in the selected eighty or so beautiful paintings, sketches and book illustrations on show. For Fragonard’s works encompass every conceivable form of love and libertinage, from chivalric courtly love, romantic love, passion, seduction as well as to libidinous acts and possibly rape, all portrayed with elegance, style and, in the majority of cases, tenderness. Vulgarity is absent in even his most explicitly erotic works.

One of the outstanding masterpieces, The Kiss, completed in 1770, shows two young people totally wrapped up in each other. It is sensuous yet delicate and full of charm. The girl is more than willing and the scene presented is one of eternal love, harmonious and sincere. No cupids nor garlands of flowers distract one’s eye, for there is nothing superfluous in the painting where forms and colours melt and fuse together.  The work portrays just two rosy cheeked adolescents in love. As Fragonard himself was with his wife, the artist Marie-Anne Gérard, whom he married in 1769.  Frago, as he liked to be called, was a happily married family man.

Born in Grasse in the South of France in 1732, the son of a glove-maker, Jean-Honoré moved to Paris with his parents at the age of 6, beginning his study of painting some 10 years later with Jean-Baptiste Chardin before becoming the pupil of François Boucher. At the age of 20, he won the prestigious Grand Prix from the French Royal Academy of Painting. He was later accepted there after spending 5 years at the Academy of France in Rome where he spent his time studying and copying masterpieces of the Italian collections. His work, from landscapes and historical paintings to portraits, exhibited at the Salon sold well. However, the central theme of much of his output was love and romance in whatever form it took.

But before one looks more closely at the "libertine stories" and explicit sketches illustrating the tales of Jean de la Fontaine, one is overwhelmed by the sensitivity and beauty of the paintings on display to which pride of place has been given.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: L’Enjeu perdu ou le Baiser gagné, ca. 1760

L’Enjeu perdu ou le Baiser gagné, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, depicts a game of cards where the stake is a kiss. The young girl on the left of the painting has visibly lost, and much against her inclination, forced by a second girl, she submits to the rough grab of the boy, a young shepherd judging by his hat and the beribboned crook cast aside on a chair behind them, who claims his due. A popular game at the time, it was nevertheless strongly denounced by many moralists including Rousseau. There is something slightly sadistic, even perverse in the evident pleasure the loser’s companion takes in holding down her friend’s wrists. The fascination with the work comes from the fact that the ‘victim’, whilst resisting, is not entirely innocent. It captures, as does The Kiss, an instant in time, imbuing the moment with poetry and emotion. Painted towards the end of Fragonard’s stay in Rome and no doubt a private commission, the work is imbued with a soft light, while the visitor can only admire the delicate colouring evident not only there, but in much of the artist’s later work.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Le Lever, ca. 1770

Ten years later, Le Lever, leaves no illusions as to the morals of the times. Two young girls, barely adolescents, are shamelessly exhibiting their attractions in the luxurious boudoir of a brothel. One, sprawled nonchalantly on her stomach, undergarments around her waist, flaunts her large, rosy round buttocks, leaving her companion, facing us, to lift her crumpled shift revealing her blond nakedness beneath. Neither is the presence of two little dogs as innocent as it looks, the message being one’s right to sexual pleasure, at least to those who can afford it, inherent in the literature of the time.

In the 18th century, private spaces reserved for the enjoyment of pleasure appeared, the "boudoir" within the home, and the "petite maison" elsewhere. Some high class brothels, such as that run by Marguerite Gourdan on the rue Saint Sauveur in Paris, even had rooms of paintings and erotic prints to entertain their privileged clients, mainly aristocrats and financiers with their courtesans. Between 1760- 1770, Frago was the uncontested leader of this style.

"Never has a chaste girl read a novel", declared Rousseau in 1761, the year he published La Nouvelle Heloise, yet reading became more widely adopted despite moralists condemning the corruptive influence of novels and correspondence on women. It was the publication of Dangerous Liaisons by Chloderlos de Laclos in 1782, which spelled the literary end of libertinism. It was thus not surprising that before then, exchanges of correspondence appeared in the works of Fragonard, with their own romantic and deliciously forbidden significance.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Le Billet doux ou La Lettre d'Amour, early 1770s

In the sublime canvas, Le Billet doux ou La Lettre d’Amour, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an elegant young lady is sitting alone in front of her writing desk clutching a bouquet of roses and tiny white flowers. She’s holding a card as she glances out, shyly, slyly, defiantly. Her little dog, nestling on the back of her chair, glowers out in sympathy with his mistress while papers in front of her suggest an established correspondence with an absent lover.

Social context apart, the work is exceedingly beautiful, painted as it is with delicate shades of pink highlighting her cheeks, the roses, the ribbon in her hair, the dusky blue satin of her dress and the muted yellow of the curtains behind, the whole scene being yet again bathed in a soft, golden light.

The Bolt, or Le Verrou, as it was called by the artist, is perhaps his most famous and most ambiguous work. Commissioned by the Marquis de Véri, the painting is openly erotic, with a partially undressed young man dragging a reluctant young girl into a bedroom. The spectator cannot help but imagine what must come next. At least, that is one’s initial reaction, with the girl trying to stop the man bolting the door. However, a glance at the unmade, rumpled bed suggests another story.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Le Verrou, 1777-1778

The two pillows have been slept upon, and a blanket has slipped to the ground. There is an apple on the bedside table and an overturned vase with a scattering of roses on the floor. Both are highly suggestive of a consummated sexual act, be it rape or a feverish mutual passion.

Fragonard was a bold and audacious illustrator of Jean Le Fontaine’s tales, dedicating several series of drawings to the work in the 1760’s, the largest, consisting of 57 pages being shown in the exhibition while from the end of the 1770’s, in contrast, he produced a collection of allegorical romantic compositions  exploring true love with the most delicate lyricism.

In an era of seduction, love and intrigue, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with his growing reputation as a libertine and painter of dissolute intimate scenes, was its main illustrator and it is strange that in the country of his birth, he does not yet enjoy the same notoriety as a Monet, Renoir or Cezanne, whose names are household words. Fragonard’s art spans half a century of artistic creativity with passion and elegance. He brought fresh sensitivity as well as sensuality to fashionable pastoral and mythical compositions, and completed many forceful, allusive "secret" works for licentious amateurs, not all of which were present in this exceptional exhibition.

Headline image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The Kiss, 1770

Fragonard in Love
Through 24 January 2016
Musée du Luxembourg
19, rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 45 44 12 90

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez.


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