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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Jean-Honore' Fragonard

Probably none of us could say that we are all that we could  be as artists. Given our talent and education, most of us could be more than what we are. It's a matter of priorities of course. We have chosen to place creature comfort, security, families, spouses, and other interests ahead of the effort to become "great" artists. Sometimes it is simply a matter of laziness. Other roads are broader, easier to travel. That was certainly the case with Jean-Honore' Fragonard. Born in 1732, the son of a glove-maker, in the South of France, he grew up in Paris, had a fine education, and went to work in a law office. His employer, seeing that he had a greater interest in art than law, suggested he study at the Ecole des Beaux-arts. Finishing his studies there, he served apprentices under such outstanding artists as Boucher and Chardin, then went on to win the Prix de Rome. There, studying at the French Academy he absorbed the great works of antiquity, returning to Paris as an accomplished painter of portraits and traditional academic subjects.

The Swing, 1767-68, Jean-Honore' Fragonard
A plump, cheerful man, he quickly became bored with such "official" work and chose instead, the highly popular rococo style and lighthearted, decorative subject matter. He married a childhood sweetheart who bore him several children. Instead of doing "great" work he chose instead to do the charming, mildly erotic, fantasy visions for the boudoirs and parlors of the high society gentry, painting for art dealers and collectors rather than museums and Salons.  He became wealthy at it. Perhaps his best, and certainly his most famous, work was his 1768, romantic delight, "The Swing."  This modest little painting (only 32" x 25") has come to typify the best (and some would say, the worst) of the Rococo style.

The Baron de St. Julien (something of a playboy) originally commissioned a history painter by the name of Doyen to do the work, giving specific instructions that his mistress should be pulled in her swing by a Bishop; and that he (the baron) should be placed in the painting in such a way that he might see her legs (and a good deal more, actually). Shocked at the request, Doyen refused the commission and suggested Fragonard in his place. Fragonard had few moral qualms about such a salacious painting, though he did substitute the woman's husband pulling the swing in place of the Bishop. The Baron lies hidden in the bushes in the lower left portion of the painting while the husband is in deep shadow at the far right. Centered in a bright ray of sunshine is the lovely young mistress, kicking off one slipper in the direction of her illicit gigolo. The painting is a riot of deep, fantasy woodland landscapery, symbolic antiquities, and dappled sunlight, highlighting unexpected details.  Fragonard was working well beneath his potential, but at least he enjoyed what he did. Alas, once the Rococo style lost favor, he found himself old, without commissions, or influence.  In 1806, he died impoverished and forgotten.

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