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
Looking for a good podcast (or two) to pass the time during your Thanksgiving travels? We got you.Continue reading »
The last time I had dinner with my hero was in September, at a restaurant out on Long Island near what had been his summer home for years.Continue reading »
The unorthodox show that opens Tuesday at Springfield’s D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts embraces the imitations.Continue reading »
In “Indentured,” Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss argue the NCAA may be the biggest threat to the long-term interests of the college athletes it claims to protect.Continue reading »
Sent off in a rowboat in Season 3, Gendry, played by Joe Dempsie, never seemed to land anywhere. It quickly became a mystery: Where did he go?Continue reading »
“The Wind Rises” is skeptical about Japanese militarism at a time when the Japanese government has expressed a desire to strengthen the nation’s military.Continue reading »
Graham Gund’s new addition to the Perkins School for the Blind brings together in one location a dazzling display of technology.Continue reading »
Ever since arriving in Boston in 1968 to teach conducting at New England Conservatory, Richard Pittman has been a quiet but steady force, a tireless advocate of repertoire that’s off the beaten path, and an under-recognized hero of the city’s new-music scene.Continue reading »
We don’t mean strict video game adaptations. Far more fascinating are films wherein video games play a major role in the plot.Continue reading »