Metropolitan Museum of Art, 302 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
In a letter of June 1847 to Théophile Thoré, the art critic responsible for the rediscovery of Vermeer, the grandson of Jean-Honoré Fragonard wrote that whenever his grandfather’s work appeared at auction and his name was announced, “Those sympathetic to his art would hear ‘People, pay honour to Fragonard!’ [Gens, Honorez Fragonard!] And the truth of the matter is, that in saying his name out loud, we realized how much he deserved it.”
Fragonard (1732–1806) was a successful, wealthy, and avidly collected artist in his lifetime, who turned his back on the Académie Royale early in his career. By his sixtieth birthday, in 1792, he had retired from painting and drawing altogether to devote himself to the administration of the French Republic’s new museums. Soon forgotten, he was reviled after his death—and well into the middle of the nineteenth century—for his licentious imagery that was seen to incarnate the frivolity of the ancien régime. It was only in the 1860s that Fragonard’s art was spectacularly rehabilitated on both sides of the Channel.
The Louvre received its first (and finest) collection of Fragonards in 1870 with the donation of Doctor Louis La Caze (1798–1869), a pioneer in the treatment of tuberculosis and typhoid fever among the Parisian poor. Second only to that institution, the Wallace Collection in London came to own the greatest concentration of masterpieces by the artist, thanks to Richard Seymour-Conway, Fourth Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870), who acquired his Fragonards for much higher prices in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Since then Fragonard has never been out of fashion. The American artist Jeff Koons owns a superb example of his erotic painting, and one of Fragonard’s last remaining portraits in private hands was sold at Bonhams auction house in London in December 2013 for over $28 million.
The most exuberant and dynamic artist of the European Enlightenment, Fragonard was an action painter long before the phrase was used. And as we learn from Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant—the excellent recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—he was an action draftsman as well. Fragonard is the joyful chronicler of amorous suitors and happy families. He is the most tender and affecting of religious painters, capable also of searing insights into the power of passion and erotic love. With Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he is the supreme apologist of Nature as a life-affirming force in man’s happiness. Pierre Rosenberg has noted that Fragonard
surpassed all the other artists of his time in depicting not the countryside, but a nature that is both grandiose and inviting, exuberant and overwhelming, familiar and mysterious…. This achievement alone ensures him a place among the greatest masters.
New York is fortunate to have the artist’s masterpiece on permanent view at the Frick…
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