Fragonard: rococo a Renoir could love

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE 12/28 WORLD EDITION (WEEKLY) It's easy to see, as one walks around the major show of paintings, drawings, and prints by Jean Honor'e Fragonard (1732-1806) now at the Grand Palais, why this 18th-century artist was a favorite, a century later, of Pierre Auguste Renoir.

Fragonard's playful lightness, his attraction to the prettiness of children and young women, his sweet, fresh color - in fact, the conviction that the pleasurable is both the subject and the object of painting - could only have appealed to Renoir.

Fragonard was, in fact, rediscovered in the second half of the 19th century. By the last years of his career, he had fallen out of fashion and favor. The revolution ruined him and the severe neo-classicism of Jacques Louis David's art must have made his seem mere froth by comparison.

Yet, even more than the Fran,cois Boucher exhibition in the Grand Palais a year ago, this impressive display indicates how wrong it is to encapsulate an artist too simply. Boucher was one of Fragonard's teachers, and, like his master, Fragonard was more than capable of frivolity, of feeding the taste of his fun-loving clientele. He could go to erotic extremes at times - though an amused kind of theatricality generally saves this side of his work from downright offensiveness. And it is true that little of the quiet piety and solid realism of Chardin (who was also, very briefly, one of his teachers) shows in Fragonard's art. One of the few branches of 18th-century painting he seems never to have attempted was still life, Chardin's forte. But by and large, his variety is impressive.

He had a notable penchant for landscape. Two trips to Italy encouraged a fondness for the landscape-with-ruins type of picture. But a painting like the Louvre's ``La Grande Cascade de Tivoli'' is far more than mere topography. It's a brilliant evocation of scale and of vivid contrasts of deep shadow and bright light. Quite differently, some of his early landscapes might have come from 17th-century Holland, just as some of his genre scenes were obviously inspired by Rembrandt. His interest in sheep, cows, and bulls suggests direct agricultural confrontations intriguingly at odds with the boudoir-artificiality of his decorative schemes. But even when he uses landscape as a setting for a fantasy, it is much less stagey than, say, the parkland idylls of his superb predecessor Jean Antoine Watteau.

A comparison with Watteau is revealing: Fragonard's rococo excitement, the passionate fire of his brushwork looks brash and breezy next to Watteau's moody poetry and sensitive modulations of surface and texture. Yet Fragonard's art has its own fresh lyricism of light and color. He suggests the peach-bloom of a girl's complexion with a kind of painterly ecstasy, and some of his most luminous colors insistently stick in the mind: the clear, rich butter-yellow of a woman's dress, the fiery-maroon darks and icy-blue highlights of a cushion.

He was no mean portraitist, either. But as a series of portraits under the banner of ``Les figures de fantaisie'' shows, accurate likeness is not his main aim. He seems, instead, to have been captivated by something almost heroic about these faces, by the exuberant capacity of paint to convey their vitality.

As a painter of family life, he displays a mixture of understanding, fondness, and realistic humor. This interest appears at its most serious in a picture like ``Les appr^ets du repas,'' where a young mother is being both helped and harassed by a superfluity of children and at its most lighthearted in later drawings like ``La premi`ere le,con d''equitation,'' in which a baby rides on a long-suffering dog. Wit sharpens the sentiment in such works, just as it seems never far away in his most artificial and sugary inventions.

Through Jan. 4. Moves to New York's Metropolitan Museum in February.

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