At home with Fragonard

THE self-portrait reproduced above shows us an artist who made himself comfortable at home. His studio looks cluttered rather than decorated, his clothing looks simple rather than fashionable, and his pose is that of a man who feels no need to make a distinguished impression on the viewer. The atmosphere is one of easygoing domesticity, and the woman in the drawing is his wife.

In its style the picture owes much to Rembrandt, a master at bringing out the inner beauty of people who were not conventionally attractive. What is most intriguing -- or at least paradoxical -- about this drawing is that the artist was Jean-Honor'e Fragonard (1732-1806), who is best known to us as the quintessential painter of upper-class artifice.

Fragonard was one of the most productive and successful artists of his time. His fame rests on his paintings of formal gardens, smiling landscapes, flirtatious nymphs and shepherds, and graceful aristocrats. In Fragonard's paintings the game of life was played as beautifully as the game of art. Unlike the work of some other artists we know, his subjects always maintain a healthy balance; their pleasure never cloys, and their opulence never degenerates into overripe luxury. Fragonard made a career out of showing to the French upper class its ideal self.

But he had another side, hardly noticed by such commentators as John Canaday, who wrote, ``There was nothing Frago[nard] could not do, except rise above the society or gallant caprice in which he moved with such zest.''

The sober truth is that he seems to have held himself apart from the society he painted. Although 18th-century Paris lived on gossip and wit, there is no record of bright or scandalous things said about Fragonard by his contem-poraries.

It was a great time for letter-writing as well; either Fragonard did not write to important people, or his correspondence was so pedestrian that it did not seem to be worth keeping.

What little we know of Fragonard's life comes mainly from his grandson, who never knew him but remembered stories told by his grandmother. However successful he was, Fragonard seems not to have cut much of a figure in the great world.

Neither the domestic tone of this self-portrait nor its stylistic debt to Rembrandt was a fluke. As an art student he frequently made copies and adaptations of paintings by Rembrandt. He won the Prix de Rome with a biblical scene entitled ``Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols,'' that was clearly an homage to Rembrandt in both style and subject matter.

Over the next few years he seemed to be preparing himself for a career as a painter of religious and historical subjects. The ``reception picture'' that earned his admission to the French Academy of Fine Arts was a morally improving scene taken from classical mythology.

Ultimately, his art took him in another direction, but the simple, home-loving Fragonard managed to coexist with the painter of upper-class amusements.

He could be all lightness and grace, and that is his special contribution to French art. From time to time, however, he chooses to remind us that an earthbound family man painted all those airy pictures of the leisure class at play. Jerome Tarshis

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