Guilty Pleasure: Fragonard’s Drawings at The Met

| 25 Oct 2016 | 04:28

Mention Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) to most art lovers in the city, and they will gush about the Fragonard Room at The Frick Collection, lined with paintings from his “Progress of Love” series depicting romantic adventures in luxuriant gardens. But many enthusiasts will be surprised to learn that this 18th century Rococo painter was an equally adept draftsman and printmaker, whose masterful drawings in red chalk and brown wash were stand-alone works marketed to private collectors — not studies for paintings and not official commissions.

For Fragonard was quite the rebel, we learn from The Met Fifth Avenue’s new show, “Drawing Triumphant,” comprised of some 100 works, all from New York collections. He ultimately turned his back on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and didn’t complete his reception piece. He even bailed on several royal commissions, preferring to follow his instincts and tap into the emerging art collectors’ market.

As the show’s curator, Perrin Stein, said about the artist’s 1,300 drawings at a recent preview: “His works on paper were at the core of his artistic enterprise. Collectors allowed him to forge an independent career akin to a modern artist.” Working with private clients gave him the freedom to showcase his virtuosity.

This unconventional son of a glove merchant was born in the city of Grasse, in Provence. When he was 6, he moved with his family to Paris, where he would later study in the studios of Jean Siméon Chardin, the still-life painter, and Francois Boucher, the Rococo painter famous for his pastoral scenes. After training at the official school of the Royal Academy, he traveled to Italy in 1756 to study at the French Academy in Rome, an experience that proved nothing short of transformative. The show’s early works are a testament to his infatuation with the Italian landscape — the gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, outside Rome, were a particular favorite and the inspiration for a brilliant series, “The Little Park,” which he executed in a variety of media. He completed six versions of the imagined Italian garden; five works on paper can be seen here, joined together for the first time since the artist was alive. (A painted iteration belongs to The Wallace Collection in London.)

Fragonard returned to Paris in 1761, but his Italian sojourn had made a lasting impression. After suffering the rejection of his “Progress of Love” paintings for the pleasure pavilion of Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, he traveled back to Italy in 1773 in the company of a wealthy patron, Pierre-Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt. He produced a wealth of drawings during this second trip, which included a stay at Bergeret’s château in Nègrepelisse and visits to Naples and Rome, but the work became the subject of a lawsuit — Bergeret thought the drawings had been created for him, Fragonard thought they belonged to him.

The resolution of the matter is unclear, but the beauty of the drawings is not in dispute. Some of the most outstanding works are the portraits of ordinary people — country people and street people, such as fisherman, merchants and entertainers. A few standouts: “A Fisherman Pulling a Net” (1774), “A Fisherman Leaning on an Oar” (1774), “Portrait of a Neapolitan Woman” (1774).

The portraits of fishermen are keenly observed pictures that employ light and shadow and “take on a realism,” Stein said, noting that they were probably produced on a quai in Naples. The identity of the Neapolitan woman is unknown, but her portrait, in its honesty and directness, is one of the show’s most arresting works and very modern.

Upon his return from Italy, Fragonard continued to sketch the Italian landscape, but his pictures were typically not identified with specific locations. “They were generated as memories,” the curator said, representing a melding of “memory and imagination.” (See the jewel-like pleasure garden “The Island of Love,” ca. 1770-80, in which he used gouache over a black chalk underdrawing.) Fragonard also reveled in drawing children, a common subject in the 18th century. He would “invent happy scenes of rustic domesticity,” Stein said of the scenes of country life in the last gallery, which call to mind 17th century Dutch genre works.

But this artist’s talents were not confined to drawing, of course. A special section of the exhibit is devoted to printmaking to illustrate the range of his graphic genius. The organizers call his last print, “The Armoire” (1778), “one of the great achievements of printmaking in eighteenth-century France.” Consider the subject: a girl’s parents barge into her room during a tryst. She is seen weeping into her apron, while her paramour is found hiding in the armoire.

“Fragonard was playful. He had whimsy. He wasn’t a self-important person,” the curator said, noting that he had used the signature “Frago” on works. The Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, called him “one of the most inventive masters of the French Rococo,” whose works were “a guilty pleasure.”

Indulge in their light and airy pleasures.