The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1778)

My Daily Art Display featured artist of the day is Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the French painter whose scenes of frivolity and gallantry are the finest examples of the Rococo spirit.  The Rococo style of art was characterised by lightness, grace, playfulness and intimacy and emerged out of France around the beginning of the 18th century and in the following century spread throughout Europe.  The actual word rococo is thought to have been used disapprovingly by a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, who ridiculed the taste which was in vogue in the mid-18th century.  He combined the artistic genres of rocaille, which prospered in the mid 16th century and was applied to works that depicted fancy rock-work and shell-work, and barocco (baroque) genre.

Fragonard was a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Chardin for a short time and later studied under the French pastoral painter Francois Boucher.   He went on to win the Prix de Rome in 1752 which eventually allowed him to travel to Italy where he remained between 1756 and 1761.  Whilst in Italy he developed a high admiration for the works of the artist Giambattista Tiepolo.  During his travels around the Italian countryside he made many drawings of the Italian landscape.  He was particularly taken with the Villa d’Este, which was situated at Tivoli near Rome and its Italian Renaissance gardens, parts of which were to feature in many of his future paintings.

In 1765 he became a member of the Académie in Paris with his historical picture in the Grand Manner entitled Coroesus Sacrificing himself to Save Callirhoe.   By 1767 his style had changed and his works became more erotic.  One example of this I featured in My Daily Art Display of March 29th when I gave you his beautiful work entitled The Swing, which is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.    In 1769 Fragonard married Marie-Anne Gérard who was a miniaturist and history painter.  Marie-Anne’s sister Marguerite Gérard, studied under Fragonard and was to become one of the greatest French female artists.  Fragonard and his wife had a daughter, Rosalie, two years later and she was often used as a model in her father’s paintings.  The following year his son, Alexandre-Évariste, was born and he would also go on to be a talented painter and sculptor.

After his marriage, he also painted children and family scenes. His works were now almost all painted for private commissions from his wealthy private patrons.  One such patron was Louis XV’s mistress, the beautiful Madame du Barry.   For her he painted a set of four pictures entitled The Progress of Love, and art historians believe they were his greatest masterpieces.  Sadly these paintings in his usual light-hearted Rococo style were, by 1773, the year he completed them, not looked on as being in vogue and they were returned to him.   The appetite for Rococo works had almost died and with that Fragonard’s commissions began to dry up and he tried his hand at the “in vogue” Neoclassicism style but he was never able to replicate his Rococo achievements with this new style.  Disheartened with the new turn of events, Fragonard left Paris in 1773 and went journeying around Europe visiting Austria Italy and Germany before returning home the following year.

His reliance on wealthy patrons, often members of Louis’s cour,t took a major blow with the onset of the French Revolution.  Fragonard lost their patronage and in many cases his patrons lost their lives.  As he was associated, through patronage, with the rich and noble he decided it was best to move with his family away from Paris and the bloody revolution and he went to Grasse, a commune in the south of the country where he was given shelter by his friend Alexander Maubert.  He eventually returned to Paris and through the auspices of the Neoclassical painter, Jaques-Louis David, a staunch and important supporter of the French Revolution, got Fragonard a position at the newly-opened Louvre.   David had been helped by Fragonard when he was a young and struggling painter and it had been time to return the favour.

Fragonard could never achieve the heights he reached during the Rococo period and died, virtually penniless, of a stroke in 1806 at the age of 74.

My featured painting today by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is entitled The Souvenir, which he completed in 1778.  In the painting we see a young girl carving something on the trunk of a tree.  According to the 1792 sale catalogue, the girl is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s heroine Julie whom he wrote about in his novel of the same name, although its original title was Lettres de deux amans habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes (“Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps”).  The figure of the girl which we see in profile is framed by the arching branches of the large tree.  Her hair is decorated with pink ribbons and we see her upper body silhouetted against a white-grey sky.

The young girl has just received a letter from her lover which we see lying on the ground.  So delighted with its contents and so besotted by her lover, she is carving his initials into the bark of the tree.  By her side, sitting on a pedestal, which bears the artist’s name, is her pet spaniel, a symbol of fidelity.  Her dog watches her intensely as her knife digs into the bark.  There is an enchanting innocence about the girl and we wonder how the relationship with her lover will progress.  Will their true love for each other triumph or will her innocent trust in true love end in sorrow?   Fragonard has painted her sumptuous pink and white dress with great skill.  Look how he has carefully and meticulously painted the folds of the satin material with all its different shading.

This is quite a small painting measuring a mere 25cms x 19cms but it is delightful and a thoroughly captivating work by the French master of Rococo spirit and who was once described as “the fragrant essence of the 18th century”.  The painting by Fragonard mirrors the French literary and social happening of the eighteenth century known as sensibilité, which reached its peak between 1760 and the French Revolution.  It was de rigueur for paintings to depict softer emotions of love, pity, sympathy and grief, a type of emotional sensitivity.

Although we are fully aware that Rococo art is in some ways a false impression of what life was like for the majority,  do we not sometimes want to dream about what a perfect life would have been like rather than be bombarded by reality with Social Realist art, which constantly reminds us of poverty and suffering?

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767)

The Rococo style of art was characterised by lightness, grace, playfulness and intimacy and emerged out of France around the beginning of the 18th century and in the following century spread throughout Europe.  The actual word rococo is thought to have been used disapprovingly by a pupil of Jacques-Louis David who ridiculed the taste, which was in vogue in the mid-18th century.  He combined the artistic genres of rocaille, which prospered in the mid 16th century and was applied to works that depicted fancy rock-work and shell-work, and barocco (baroque) genre. 

The featured artist in My Daily Art Display is Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose works are amongst the most complete embodiments of the Rococo spirit.   He has been described as the “fragrant essence” of the 18th century.  He was famous for the fluid grace and sensuous charm of his paintings and for the virtuosity of his technique.  The painting by Fragonard featured today is probably his most famous and is the oil on canvas work entitled The Swing which he completed in 1767 and which is now part of the Wallace Collection in London.

The story behind the painting is fascinating and well documented.  The French dramatist and songwriter Charles Collé tells how he met the painter Francois Doyen in 1767 who tells him that he has been approached by a “gentleman of the court” who had seen one of his religious paintings being exhibited in Paris.  The painter Doyen goes to meet the gentleman and relates to Collé what happened next:

“…I found him at his ‘pleasure house’ with his mistress.  He started by flattering me with courtesies and finished by avowing that he was dying with a desire to have me make a picture, the idea of which he was going to outline. I should like Madame (pointing to his mistress) on a swing that a bishop would set going. You will place me in such a way that I would be able to see the legs of the lovely girl, and better still, if you want enliven your picture a little more……. I confess, M. Doyen said to me, that this proposition, which I wouldn’t have expected, considering the character of the picture that led to it, perplexed me and left me speechless for a moment. I collected myself, however, enough to say to him almost at once: “Ah Monsieur, it is necessary to add to the essential idea of your picture by making Madame’s shoes fly into the air and having some cupids catch them.”

Doyen decided not to accept the commission but instead passed it on to Fragonard.  The identity of the patron is unknown, though he was at one time thought to have been the Baron de Saint-Julien, the Receiver General of the French Clergy, which would have explained the request to include a bishop pushing a the swing.  However Fragonard insisted on replacing the bishop with the more traditional figure of the cuckholded husband.  

So let us examine the picture.  We see a young woman on a swing.  She is swinging with gay, if somewhat thoughtless, abandon as the sunlight beams down upon her.  She is at the apex of her arc and suddenly her shoe has flown off.  She has achieved this position due to the help afforded to her by the naive cleric (or cuckholded husband), on the right, who we can see pulling the swing rope.  On the left, lying on the ground below the swing, semi-concealed in the shrubbery,  is a young attentive male courtier who is staring at the long and exposed legs of the young woman.  Her legs are parted and with the motion of the swing, her skirt is open.  Not only are her legs exposed but the young man is able to see under the many petticoats that she is wearing under her pink flowing dress.  She knows he is watching her every move and is obviously pleased by this attention.   He reaches out as if to try and touch her. 

Fragonard once again made free association of fanciful costumes and provided us with a slight bit of erotic suggestions.  This work by Fragonard is without doubt erotic but does not actually cross the line to be viewed as vulgar.  There is a joyful aspect to this painting.  However the painting received mixed reviews with the artist being criticised for the frivolity of the picture and that he should show “a little more self-respect”.    The artist was unmoved by such disparagement and truth be told the popularity of his work continued.   His commissions came in thick and fast, both from wealthy patrons and from the royal government.   The royal patronage came to an end with their downfall during the French Revolution of 1789 and a year later Fragonard returned to his native Provence.  Two years later, he went back to live in Paris.  He died there in 1806 aged 74.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was born in Grasse, Provence and since 1926 the town has been the home of the very famous French Parfumerie Fragonard !!