Grasse 1732–1806 Paris
Jean-Honoré Fragonard is the last great exponent of French rococo art and a bridge to Neo-classicism. His best works are those that represent amorous adventures or depict single fantasy figures painted with high color and great brio. His masterpiece is the Progress of Love, a series of large canvases commissioned by King Louis XV’s mistress, the Madame du Barry, and now in the Frick Collection, New York.
Born in the Provencal town of Grasse, Fragonard moved to Paris with his family as a boy. There he trained first with Chardin (1699–1779) and then with Boucher (1703–70). In 1752 he won the Prix de Rome, after which he embarked on a career as a history painter with works like Psyche showing her Sisters Cupid’s Presents (National Gallery, London) in which the artist injected unexpected humor and a hedonistic delight in the rendering of fabrics and jewels into a Classical subject. Shortly afterwards, in around 1754, Fragonard entered Boucher’s studio and painted pastoral scenes in his master’s manner. In 1756 he made the obligatory journey to Italy with his patron the Abbé de Saint-Non and the painter Hubert Robert (1733–1808). There, he drew numerous landscapes, famously the gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. By 1761 Fragonard was back in Paris where he produced paintings based on his Italian drawings as well as landscapes in the style of Dutch Golden Age landscape painter, Jacob Ruisdael (1628–82). In 1765 Fragonard was approved for the Académie Royale with another large History painting, Coresus and Callirhoe. However, he turned his back on this success and the possibility for official recognition which it conferred and became instead a painter of smaller works for private collectors.
The most celebrated of these is The Swing, a scene set in a lush arbor in which a beautiful girl kicks up her legs and petticoats, while swinging above her paramour who reclines on the garden floor. Four years later he painted a larger more ambitious suite of romantic rococo works for Madame du Barry, also depicting a young couple making love in a garden. These works, which have their origins in the fêtes champêtres by Giorgione (1478–1510) and then Watteau (1684–1721) were richly painted but usually showed more restraint and less flesh than the mythologies of Boucher, an exception being the paintings of a naked nubile girl toying with her dog. At the same time, Fragonard painted a series of ‘Fantasy portraits’ of friends and patrons, often wearing clothes in the Spanish style and usually painted with extraordinary freedom and at great speed. More than one of these portraits show an awareness of Rembrandt. Fragonard returned to Italy in the 1770s and when he arrived back in Paris two years later, he adopts a cooler, more polished style, even for works such as Le Verrou which have an overtly erotic content and dramatic subject. His very late works, such as the Fountain of Love (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) are more thinly painted and ethereal in their effect. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, Fragonard’s output slowed considerably. He collaborated on occasion with his sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard, painting sentimental cabinet pictures executed in a highly refined style. On the recommendation of the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), he spent his final years overseeing the establishment of the new national museum, the Louvre.
Top Auction Results for Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d'Harcourt
Sold for £17,106,500 ($27,933,540)
London, Bonhams, 5 December 2013, The Rau UNICEF Sale, lot 85
Sold for £5,281,500 ($8,487,064)
London, Christie’s, 17 December 1999, Old Master Pictures, lot 95
Girl holding a dove (Marie-Catherine Colombe?)
Sold for £3,523,750 ($5,128,438)
London, Christie’s, 13 December 2000, Important Old Master Pictures, lot 64