NEW YORK — Jean Honoré Fragonard, whose work as a draftsman is the subject of a stately show at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, survived the French Revolution. But he was by no means a central actor in that world-changing event.
In fact his artistic vision — along with that of his early teacher, Francois Boucher — is one of the lenses through which we habitually visualize the very world the revolution sought to displace.
Fragonard painted and drew nymphs and shepherdesses, islands of love, bosky gardens in the gloaming, and — most famously — young women on swings. He epitomized the style known as Rococo, which, rightly or wrongly, summons pastel-colored visions of a once grand tradition reduced to rank frivolity.
I have always loved Fragonard, and sought out the show at the Met, despite limited time in New York and a glut of more ostentatious exhibitions crying out to be seen.
“Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant — Works From New York Collections,” which runs through Jan. 8, was organized by Perrin Stein. It comes 38 years after a similarly conceived show, “Drawings by Fragonard in North American Collections,” organized by the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, and the Fogg Art Museum (now Harvard Art Museums, which, by the way, has a particularly superb collection of Fragonard drawings.)
Such is the recent enthusiasm for Fragonard’s drawings among New York collectors — both public and private — that two-thirds of the works in the current show were acquired after 1988, when a Fragonard retrospective was jointly staged by the Met and the Louvre. And more than three-quarters were not in the 1978 survey of drawings from American collections.
1788 was a bitter year for Fragonard. His daughter Rosalie, who had been born six months after his marriage to the miniaturist Marie Anne Gerard, died, at age 18.
Two months later, Fragonard was censured by the Royal Academy for Painting and Sculpture for failing to produce a so-called “reception piece,” a painting artists had to submit to the academy to guarantee membership. He was scolded for being capricious and irresponsible.
Already we like him, no?
Official art of the time was tending away from Fragonard’s flickering, feminine, lightly amorous mode toward a rigid, hyper-masculine, neo-classical style fired by notions of stiff-jawed virtue and valor. And then, within a year of his reprimand, a mob stormed the Bastille and the National Assembly published the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”
It was the beginning of the end for Fragonard, whose last work in this show — a portrait of a seated man, a slightly anxious smile on his face — is dated ca. 1785-88. In 1793, the year the Royal Academy was dissolved, Fragonard became a member of the Commune des Arts, the revolutionary body which the great neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David (a friend of Robespierre) had established as a foil to the Academy.
Fragonard worked until 1800 as a curator at the museum that would later become the
Louvre. But in the end, it seems, he was not much interested in “official art” as sanctioned by either side of the political spectrum, which partly explains why those labels — capricious and irresponsible — still cling to his name.
More than two centuries after his death, in 1806, Fragonard is still thought of, as Met director Thomas Campbell says in his foreword to the catalog, as “more of a guilty pleasure than a noble taste.” But the myth of Fragonard as a wastrel who was cavalier with his talents is largely just that.
What’s special about Fragonard’s drawings is hard to put into words. He worked in red and brown chalk, as well as pen and ink, often using a brush to apply tinted washes. The results have a free and fluttery quality, but they are in no way tentative. In fact, they assert their own self-sufficiency.
Fragonard was at the vanguard of a new tendency to make drawings not as preparatory studies for paintings but as independent works. Both his virtuosity and the richness and wit of his imagining were such that the drawings found a ready market. The Goncourt brothers, who helped revive Fragonard’s reputation in the mid-19th century, called his drawings “the diary of his imagination.”
His handling of the human form — women, men, babies, and the various draped fabrics that clothe them — as well as of animals is astonishingly assured. In works like “Reading in the Kitchen” and “The First Riding Lesson” one feels swept up into the action, as in a Fellini movie set to a soundtrack by Mozart. They are full of joy and surprise and bubbling diversions. Fragonard was also a masterful printmaker. His etching “The Armoire,” which shows a lover’s tryst in a large cupboard interrupted by the young woman’s angry parents (and a small dog with the sniveling demeanor of a canine Judas) — is the most famous, and also the last, of his prints. Others have also been included among the drawings.
But what Fragonard did best was render tall trees and massy foliage — especially as he remembered them from the summer of 1760, which he spent, near the end of a five-year stint as a student in Rome, in Tivoli, outside the sacred city, sketching in the gardens of the Villa d’Este. Those gardens are the subject of “The Little Park,” an enchanting, almost symmetrical composition which Fragonard so loved that he made six versions: three drawings, a gouache, an etching, and a painting. All but the painting are displayed here.
We often associate 18th-century French art with intimate interiors, pastel colors, and beautiful clothes. But at least as important for such artists as Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard was the soft, inviting darkness of the woods, of ancient trees spreading over architecture and dwarfing the human comedy.
It is a motif that has nothing to do with public virtue, military valor, political upheaval, or any other big human theme. Unless, of course, you consider mystery, secrecy, and a love of nature to be big human themes. Evidently, Fragonard did.
FRAGONARD: DRAWING TRIUMPHANT – WORKS FROM NEW YORK COLLECTIONS
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through Jan. 8. 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.