18th-Century French Elegance
IF this small, charming gouache painting looks like a quintessential French landscape of the 18th century, it is because the artist, Jean-Honor'e Fragonard, embodies the delicate touch, the elegance, and the clear light which characterizes the best of French painting. The locale is, however, Rome, not Paris. When Fragonard was a boy, his parents had moved from Provence in the south of France to Paris. He was first apprenticed to a lawyer who quickly advised his parents that art was a more likely occupation for their son. (It is remarkable how many French parents tried to make lawyers out of sons destined to become great painters - Manet, Degas, and Cezanne.) Fragonard's mother ambitiously selected two of the leading painters, Fran,cois Boucher and Jean Sim'eon Chardin, as likely masters. Both Boucher and Chardin were excellent painters, but the young man from Provence would outstrip them both.
Chardin was a meticulous painter who is known for his well-composed, strongly painted still-life and genre works. His instruction to his pupils was ``search, scumble, and glaze.'' By ``search,'' he may have been telling his students to make many compositional studies in order to find the best arrangement for a subject. ``Scumble'' admonished them to blur the outlines of colors, usually with an opaque paint of whitish tint. ``Glaze'' means to enhance a tone or to shadow it with thin, transparent paint.
Young Fragonard seems to have become impatient with Chardin's painstaking methods and began studying with Boucher, one of the most famous court painters. He had a vigorous style who taught ``brush in hand'' rather than by theories. Boucher recognized his pupil's talent and after four years urged the young man to submit a canvas to the French Royal Academy in the competition for the Prix de Rome. This was a prize, indeed, as it provided study at the Royal Academy at Rome, the art center of Europe.
So, when Fragonard was just 20 years old, he made a large canvas, ``Jeroboam Sacrificing to Idols.'' He won first prize over older, more schooled competitors, justifying Boucher's confidence in his readiness. Attendance for four more years at the royal 'Ecole des 'El`eves Prot'eg'es was required before the sojourn in Rome.
When the young, untraveled painter arrived in Rome, he was stunned by the diversity of art styles he found there. He later wrote, ``The energy of Michelangelo terrified me. I experienced an emotion I was incapable of expressing; on seeing the beauties of Raphael, I was moved to tears, and the pencil fell from my hand; in the end, I remained for some months in a state of indolence which I lacked the strength to overcome....''
Although the director of the French Academy at Rome was a sympathetic man, a painter named Natoire, he was appalled by this ``state of indolence'' and charged Fragonard with having deceived the Paris Academy by submitting a painting done by another artist. Fragonard begged for more time and was granted three months grace during which time he worked diligently ``day and night from models.''
But even when the first examples were sent back to Paris, the overseer of the Royal Academy wrote to Natoire that ``the male life study painted by Fragonard would have appeared more satisfactory if we had not been aware of the striking gifts he had already manifested in Paris and it is feared that the imitation of certain masters may do him harm ... urge him therefore to look in the old masters only for that which shows a true imitation of nature.''
Fragonard and his fellow pensionnaires would have been aided by Giovanni Paolo Panini who taught perspective at the French Academy. He was a popular ``view'' painter who provided renderings (some imaginative) of famous sites for the aristocracy of Europe. Another master whom Fragonard most likely encountered was Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Piranesi's engravings were used in the course of instruction at the academy and his workshop was a gathering place for artists.
Fragonard recovered his natural productivity and made lovely sketches of Rome, the most striking of which was a series on the noble gardens. These he worked up into full-size paintings on his return to Paris.
``Gardens of the Villa d'Este'' was the most popular one in the series. He even made an etching after his painting which is usually called ``Le Petit Parc.'' The reproduction on this page is another version done on fine vellum, the parchment used for illuminated manuscripts. Gouache, the opaque watercolor, maintains its freshness and the piece looks as if it just came from the artist's hand. The figures add liveliness without deflecting attention from the beauty of the gardens. Brilliantly and exquisitely painted with all the attention to the lights, shadows, and spatial depth of a large painting, the work was probably commissioned by an important patron.
Fragonard had put his Italian experience to good account without adopting any of the Roman mannerisms. He was a budding French artist when he arrived and an accomplished French artist when he left. He was admitted to the Royal Academy in Paris with an enthusiasm and unanimity rarely seen in that contentious bureaucracy. He had great success in the court of Louis XV, gracefully depicting the frivolous pastimes of the ruling class.
But the fashion in art was turning toward a more linear, austere classicism away from Fragonard's graceful confections. Marie Antoinette and the court of Louis XVI ignored him.
When the Revolution arrived, Fragonard and his family supported it. His wife and her younger sister gave all their jewels to the cause. Possibly, familiarity with the decadent courts had bred contempt. But the terror caused the family to retire to Provence, to take shelter with cousins.
They later returned to Paris where Jacques-Louis David with his severe, moralistic classicism, was the arbiter of art. But David befriended Fragonard and obtained a government post for him at the national art museum. After Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, he took over the Louvre, evicting all the artists who had been granted studios there. Fragonard was given a small pension in recompense.
This very French artist lived through all this tumult of history and the vicissitudes of art with basic good nature regarded with much affection by those who knew him. This delicate, graceful approach to art was part of Fragonard's great legacy.