The exhibition Fragonard amoureux: Galant et libertin (Fragonard in Love: Suitor and Libertine) is currently located at the Musée du Luxembourg from September 16, 2015 until January 24, 2016. Born in Grasse, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), or « Frago », is thought to be one of the most influential painters of the 18th century, especially during the years preceding the French Revolution. From 1748-1752 Fragonard began his training as a painter with Jean-Baptiste Chardin and François Boucher. Soon thereafter, he was the recipient of the Grand Prix award in 1752, which subsequently led to his acceptance into the French Royal Academy of Painting in 1765. A series of important paintings were commissioned over the course of his lifetime including L’Aurore triumphant de la Nuit (1755), Le Verrou (1775), Le Jeu de la main chaude (1775), and Renaud entre dans la forêt (1761). The Enlightenment encouraged variations on the romantic genre, directly translated into painting or other artistic forms. Although Fragonard unabashedly indulged in the themes of romance and love, he also painted a variety of subjects including landscapes, genres, historical, grand interiors, and portraits.
A direct vestige of the Grand Siècle, the concept of galenterie was representative of French national identity in the 18th century, evoking utopian pastoral scenes. L’amour galant encouraged tenderness, sincerity, mutual respect, and loyalty. As a student of François Boucher (1703-1770), Fragonard was directly influenced by the former’s invention of an iconography that was a combination of love, romance, and pastoral gallantry. The ability to appropriately express emotions and sensuality was a major concern of artistic, literary, and philosophical circles. François Boucher’s Les Charmes de la vie champêtre (1735-1740), also visible at the exhibition, was inspired by Hubert-François Gravelot’s illustrations for the literary work, L’Astrée (1733) written by Honoré d’Urfé (1567 – 1625).
The exhibition opens with the theme of Le berger galant (The Gallant Shepherd) which includes Le Colin-Maillard (1754-1756). It was Fragonard’s first foray into pastoral paintings, and it clearly borrowed essential formal elements from Boucher including clothing, disposition, lighting, and color palette. Le Colin-Maillard (Blind Man’s Bluff) evokes a lush, flowering pastoral scene framed by a soft blue sky. It is a flirtatious, sensual scene in which a young shepherdess in fashionable, rustic attire playfully peeks through the bandage covering her eyes, presumably placed there by her lover. He has light-brown curly hair, and is clothed in a yellowish-green overcoat with pink shirt. The young boy is in ¾ view, positioned slightly behind the shepherdess’s right shoulder, and is attempting to tickle her with a string.
The elegant shepherdess is the dominant, central figure, positioned in a slight contrapposto which animates the entire scene with movement. The voluminous fabric of her pink, satin dress is illuminated by a soft, gentle light originating from the upper left corner of the painting. A yellowish, straw hat tipped in pink sits atop waves of undulating, blond hair. White, billowing, cotton sleeves reaching her elbows mirror the whiteness of the eye bandage, as well as undergarments covering her bosom. The pink fabric contrasts the grayish-blue silk undergarment which extends to her ankles. This blue is mirrored in the ribbons of the shepherdess’s shoelaces, the delicate bunch of wildflowers tucked into her bosom, and the wispy ribbon which adorns her neck.
Fragonard utilizes a soft color palette including pink, blue, white, green, and yellow to evoke an erotically-charged, pastoral environment popular amongst the 18th century aristocracy. Other elements include the appearance of two, playful putti which serve as artistic inspiration. One is positioned on his back at the shepherdess’s feet, engaging in a game of stick and string with the blindfolded girl, while the other is positioned in the far left of the painting. He is partially hidden by the lush, sprawling foliage which covers deteriorating architectural elements prominently located in the foreground (stairs, vase, and base), as well as the background.
Clever groupings of figures, a skillful implementation of the chiaroscuro technique, and the decay of solid, structural features provide strong visible juxtapositions between two distinct realms: a contrived, neoclassical construction, and a utopian pastoral, Arcadia. The former being solid, weighted, and rigid; the latter being light, voluminous, and lush. This concept is also evident with Fragonard’s selection of materials, soft color palette, and positioning of roughly-textured wooden objects in the foreground (lower right-hand side of the painting). They are also located immediately to the left of the shepherd and shepherdess. A strong diagonal is formed across the painting which is created by the light source emanating from the upper left corner. Vertical and horizontal divisions are distinct throughout the pastoral scene. Strong, architectural lines of the stairs, background stone structure, pedestals, and obliques contrast the lushness provided by sprawling wildflowers, trees, ivy, and billowing fabric adorning the two central figures and playful putti.
The choice of paintings, engravings, and drawings in the Musée du Luxembourg’s current exhibition are carefully positioned according to specific themes. These mirror the trajectory of Fragonard’s artistic production from the beginning of his career until his death in Paris on August 22, 1806. The first of these divisions is Le berger galant (The Gallant Shepherd). It is the opening theme of the current exhibition. Following is Les amours des dieux (The Loves of the Gods), which reveals mythological tales of Antiquity. Said to have been executed in a superfluous, licentious style of painting, this « libertinage » theme was a favorite topic amongst the élite. Critiques argued that it was a theme disguised as gallantry, and it was, in fact, blatantly hedonistic. This created a complete fragmentation and detachment from its supposedly romantic sentiment.
Next, Éros rustique et populaire (Rustic and Popular Eros), was a theme which inspired Fragonard after his first trip to Rome in 1756. This encouraged two distinct styles. The first referenced the popular literary genre poissard. Artistic production pointed to carnal urges and pictorial references of rustic scenes of 17th century Flemish painters such as Rubens (1577-1640). The second style referenced Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) love of nature. Other themes worth exploring in the exhibition include: Fragonard illustrateur de contes libertins (Fragonard, Illustrator of Libertine Tales), Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, un maître en libertinage (Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, A Liberinist Master), Fragonard et l’imagerie licencieuse (Fragonard and Licentious Imagery), La lecture dangereuse (Dangerous Reading), Le Renouveau de la fête galante (The Revival of the Fête Galante), L’amour moralisé (Love Moralized), La passion héroïque (Heroic Passion), and Les allégories amoureuses (Romantic Allegory).
Faroult, Guillaume. Album de l’exposition du Musée du Luxembourg. Fragonard amoureux: Galant et libertin. Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais, 2015.