FRAME BY FRAME
Harvard Art Museums/President and Fellows of Harvard College
Motherly love and, to just the right degree, grandmotherly love are the subjects of this adorable painting, made in France just a few years before the Revolution. Silk dresses, obviously, play a big role too.
The painting, at the Harvard Art Museums, is called “The First Steps.” Yes, it’s cheesy — and not as affecting as Rembrandt’s famous pen drawing of the same subject. But it’s superb in its own way.
The painting is attributed both to Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) and his sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837). Gérard was the younger sister of Fragonard’s wife, and she came to live with the Fragonard family after her mother died.
She was 14. The apartment they lived in just happened to be in the Louvre, which was spectacularly handy for someone just then falling in love with art. Gérard, who found herself especially drawn to the Dutch masters of the 17th century, became Fragonard’s pupil.
Lucky her. Along with Watteau, Chardin, and Boucher, Fragonard was one of the great French artists of the 18th century. Praised in his youth as an artist of “astonishing talent, able to change from one style to another,” he decided, just as his official career was peaking, to turn away from conventional academic painting and to toss out portraits, landscapes, and sentimental genre scenes instead.
The French Academy despaired of his “frivolity and lack of interest.” But that’s exactly what I love about him.
Fragonard’s work expresses ease and nonchalance, a sense of things mattering to this degree but no more. His favored subjects — boudoirs, enclosed gardens, amorous conversations, and young children — suggest a natural affinity (biologically speaking) between eroticism, child-rearing, and sentimentality.
In the 18th century the “erotic” was regarded as a civilizing concept, a necessary component in the attempt to find a perfect equilibrium between reason and feeling. It’s interesting, given this, to learn that, as the popularity of what one critic called Fragonard’s “slapped on, dashed off, well whipped up style” sagged in the early 1770s, he returned to a tighter, more “reasonable” style. And in effecting this transformation he was strongly influenced by the Dutch-loving Gérard.
The writings of Rousseau on childhood and education hover in the background of any 18th-century painting that chooses to show a child taking its first steps. This painting, which has a pendant hanging nearby, called “The Beloved Child” (it’s also attributed to both artists), celebrates simplicity, the joy of maternal feelings, and the innocence of childhood.
Meanwhile, Gérard’s developing mastery of fabrics (it was probably her hand behind the mother’s dress in “The First Steps”), suggest that she was getting on with her own ideas.
The First Steps
By Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Marguerite Gérard
At Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org
On “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver said that President Trump’s trade policies are hurting, not helping, Americans.Continue reading »
“RBG” looks at the personal and professional lives of the Supreme Court justice, now in her 25th year in that job.Continue reading »
This summer has brought atmospheric environments to get excited about.Continue reading »
Earlier this week Mark Wahlberg stopped by “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” to promote his new movie, “Mile 22.”Continue reading »
Late night host Stephen Colbert weighed in on a Boston Globe-led drive of newspapers across the country to support the free press -- and had a chance to try out his Boston accent, too.Continue reading »
Julia Boyd’s “Travelers in the Third Reich” shows the extent to which reactions to the regime varied.Continue reading »
Suggestions from Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jesmyn Ward, Rita Dove, William Julius Wilson, Claudia Rankine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, and others.Continue reading »
Uniqlo shirts will feature patterns from centuries-old Japanese stencils.Continue reading »
Now, he’s following fellow “Daily Show” alums Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee into the world of talk shows.Continue reading »