Jean-Honoré Fragonard The Musical Contest (Conversation galante dans un parc; L’amoureux couronné) (P471)
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), one of the best-known proponents of French Rococo painting. The Musical Contest (c. 1754-5) is one of eight paintings by the artist in the Wallace Collection.
A beautiful and elegantly dressed young girl, holding a parasol, is depicted at the moment of choice between two prospective suitors. Both suitors attempt to win her affection through their skills as musicians. The young man on her left, holding a flute in his hand, tries to engage her attention by grasping her around the waist. To the girl’s right, another suitor gazes adoringly at her, while playing on his musette. The musette (also known as a musette de cour) was a type of bagpipe found in rural France which enjoyed a short-lived popularity among eighteenth-century French aristocrats. It appears as though this smartly-attired young man is about to be rewarded and crowned with a garland of pink flowers. The contest between the suitors takes place in an idyllic garden, lush with foliage, a stone urn and a fountain decorated with carved putti.
In The Musical Contest the light falls onto the canvas and illuminates the female figure’s exposed white flesh, conjuring an image of unbridled sensuality. In his almost voyeuristic representation of young lovers, Fragonard follows the precedent set by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who established the Rococo genre of the fête galante, a theatrical depiction of love in an arcadian setting. Eight of his works can be seen in this gallery. The theatricality of Fragonard’s subject is evident in the sweeping gestures of the female figure and the carefully orchestrated composition which draws our eye towards her. Fragonard’s teacher, François Boucher (1703-1770) also painted numerous scenes of similar amorous encounters such as A Summer Pastoral (La couronne accordée au berger), pictured here, (P489) in which the motif of the crown of flowers as the suitor’s reward can also be seen.
Born in Grasse in 1732, Fragonard was apprenticed first to the realist painter Jean Siméon Chardin (1699 -1779) and later to Boucher. He was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1752 and studied at the Ecole des Elèves Protegés under Carle Van Loo (1705-1765). As Boucher’s assistant, Fragonard was reputedly entrusted with the execution of replicas of his master’s paintings. The Musical Contest, probably painted in c.1754-5 after he left Boucher’s studio, was mistakenly believed to be the work of Boucher when it was purchased by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, the father of Richard Wallace, in or after 1842. The 4th Marquess was particularly fond of Rococo works which explains why there are so many in the Collection.
- Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Fragonard: Vie et Oeuvre, Editions Vilo, Paris, 1987
- Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures: A Complete Catalogue, London, 2004 (available in The Wallace