Prolific though he was, Fragonard’s life remains obscure. He left no memoirs or diaries, and no letters of significance. Most descriptions of him, though far from definitive, reveal a taciturn, secretive, often morose man who stood just under five feet and was known to be disputatious and vindictive. Two rich patrons who engaged Fragonard as a traveling companion for artistic journeys made hardly any reference to him, suggesting that they could not pin down his personality and preferred to forget his company. He dodged celebrity, abandoning the path open to him as a well-trained, official “peintre du roi” in favor of exploring his own inclinations through private commissions. Only five of his paintings are dated.
Even Fragonard’s most sympathetic contemporaries despaired of what they saw as his “self-defeating modesty.” In his old age, when his portrayals of the delights of aristocratic private life clashed with the relentlessly public demands of revolutionary ferment, Fragonard slipped into obscurity and mainly drew for himself, retouched existing works, and collaborated in lesser paintings with his wife Marie-Anne, his son Alexandre-Évariste, and his pupil and sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard, all well-regarded artists in their own right. As his grandson Théophile, also an accomplished painter, wrote after his death, “he outlived his public by some twenty-five years.” Fragonard’s posthumous renown only came decades later, when the famous Goncourt brothers rediscovered him. The stylizations of his brushwork, which favored motion over representation, subsequently found their way into impressionist painting; Berthe Morisot was reputedly his great-great-niece, though the relationship is uncertain. Fragonard’s standing in the international artistic firmament was cemented by the industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s purchase for his Manhattan home — now the Frick Collection — of the four-panel series The Progress of Love, which Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry had rejected, presumably as old-fashioned, after Fragonard had completed it on commission for her.
Despite the cynicism of our increasingly irrelevant art academicians, who tend to view Fragonard’s popularity as suspect in a world that demands relentless social purpose in creativity, enduring Romantic sensibilities have only increased Fragonard’s value and renown. In January 2021 (to cite only the most recent example), Christie’s sold 14 of his drawings, with most going above the estimated price even as galleries are taking a beating in the pandemic economy. The highest valued among them realized a double estimate, at $1.1 million.
With only barebones biographical details, writing a definitive scholarly biography of Fragonard is a challenge. In Fragonard: Painting Out of Time, Satish Padiyar of London’s Courtauld Institute, who has previous written on Fragonard’s contemporaries Jacques-Louis David and Antonio Canova, prefers to pursue what he calls the “Fragonard effect,” a thematic exploration of his life and works unmoored from linear biographical narrative. For reasons that elude me, this approach is becoming popular in biographies of less documentable subjects, but it really only conveys impressions or themes from a life rather than a studied appreciation.
The main themes Padiyar favors, in chapter-length treatments, are “secrets,” “surprise,” and “dreams.” By “secrets,” the author means the unknown or unverifiable details of Fragonard’s life, though many of these have been at least deduced elsewhere, as well as the “secrets” of private life as revealed in his works, which clashed with the public-oriented “common good” Enlightenment sensibilities adopted by so many of his peers. After producing his landmark Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirhoe (1765), Fragonard never again attempted a sprawling historical painting, instead preferring what his detractors termed “the small” (“le petit”). This included “small” people, especially children of prosperous parentage in portraits or domestic scenes that impart a powerful sense of personal autonomy. I have one of these portraits in my own collection, of a rosy-cheeked boy who bears a confident countenance that young people are no longer supposed to display. The larger A Boy as Pierrot (ca. 1776–1780), now in London’s Wallace Collection, is a more accessible example.
The “petit” category also encompassed the “small” work of fulfilling private commissions, many of which remain obscure in origin and inspiration. One of Fragonard’s most vibrant works, a 16-painting collection of individuals in flowing Spanish dress engaged in leisure or creative activities known as Fantasy Portraits (ca. 1769), was so “secret” that we still do not know why Fragonard painted them. The subjects’ identities largely remained a mystery until an annotated drawing by the artist, which named almost all of them, emerged in 2012. Long scattered among different owners, they were not even widely recognized as a composite work until the 1960s and have only been displayed together twice since then, most recently at Washington’s National Gallery in 2017.
As radical applications of “reason” fought for hegemony over French public life, critics resented Fragonard’s purportedly dangerous indulgence in the personal and private spheres. For them, these realms of undisciplined feeling fostered loyalty to family over society, to love over duty, to pleasure over reason. In their priggish view, Fragonard was all the worse since his commissions by their very nature meant that his creations would be limited to private contemplation and concealed from public view. That they were also lucrative (Fragonard’s late-life poverty seems to have resulted from bad investments and the financial chaos of revolutionary France) probably did not soften their antagonism. Infamously reviewing his cherubic A Group of Children in the Sky (1767, likely a study for a rococo ceiling painting), the encyclopedist Denis Diderot derided Fragonard’s efforts as poorly executed decoration and never again mentioned him in print. Many of Diderot’s contemporaries agreed that the artist was outmoded and would have no legacy. By transgressing philosophe sensibilities, Fragonard was, in effect, “cancelled,” at least in Enlightenment cultural discourse.
We can only imagine what, if anything, Diderot thought of Fragonard’s iconic The Swing (or, to give it its original title, Happy Accidents of the Swing ), but the theme of “surprise” allows Padiyar to offer some of his most original analysis. The Swing’s fuller title is more instructive here, for it is the “accidental” exposure of its central figure’s eponymous ride that allows her young suitor to see what lies underneath her flowing dress as she is propelled into mid-air.
Fragonard’s most dynamic works undeniably capture the energy of a dynamic “moment.” The very best, in Padiyar’s apt description, explore “the visceral and psychic experience of a sudden loss of balance,” or a “precariousness” to which the artist was “bizarrely, hyper-sensitively attuned,” like a quick-shutter camera snapping an action shot in real time. Most evocative were those images that involved amorous encounters, which The Swing only suggests with attenuated gestures that recall divinities in the Renaissance masterpieces Fragonard had studied in Rome.
Elsewhere, the “surprise” element often suggests ambiguity or doubt. While some of his works, such as The Oath of Love (ca. 1780), offer genuinely absorbing affection bathed in warm colors, others, such as The Useless Resistance (ca. 1770–1773) and the more famous The Bolt (ca. 1778), which Padiyar claims to find “shocking,” approach the fine line between willing seduction and libertine ravishment. Padiyar’s moral poses and consequent interpretive license sound manufactured for a modish purpose that already seems rather dated, but the academic discipline of art history would probably not have it any other way. Are the red curtains in The Bolt really suggestive of sexual assault in a sympathetic anticipation of #MeToo? Probably not. The Goncourts sardonically noted that its female subject’s “fall is inevitable,” but when The Bolt entered the Louvre’s collection in 1974, the only public discussion involved questions about its authenticity. Thirty years later, Annie Leibovitz had no problem recreating the scene for Vogue, with Gisele Bündchen and Gérard Depardieu standing in for the figures.
Padiyar’s “dreams” theme explores another form of the hidden personal life, examining Fragonard’s frequent depiction of repose and reverie. The author convincingly argues that these very private actions suggest the personal autonomy and freedom from time constraints that proved intolerable to the philosophes in their mad quest for a purposeful existence and demand that their sober values be reflected in art. Fragonard’s works in this vein are vulnerable to the tendentious charge that they draw the viewer into a contemplation of lethargy that threatens to distract from the active life of the homme engagé. The artist himself may have been his own best subject in documenting this effrontery: in The Inspiration of the Artist (ca. 1763), he drew a rare self-portrait of his stout figure reclining before a work table with his hand placed searchingly over his eyes and forehead as a host of angels flutters around him.
The Goncourts’ concluding metaphor, in their summation of Fragonard’s oeuvre, was that his “painting is a dream.” They were prescient, for such scenes remain popular today: Christie’s recent top-selling Fragonard drawing was his Young Woman Dozing (c. 1775–1785), which depicts a young lady snoozing in a chair before a vanity mirror. As Talleyrand memorably said, “He who has not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life.” In the 21st century, the discerning among us may again have glimpses of it.
Paul du Quenoy is a private investor and critic. He holds a PhD in history from Georgetown University.