Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) gives little away in his graphic self-portrait, in which he faces down the viewer with a firm, level gaze, the hint of a smile playing about his mouth.
Yet this straightforward, rather workaday depiction is that of one of the leading proponents of the ‘rococo’ style – the architectural and artistic style that developed in France in 18th century, characterised by swirling lines, strong diagonals, asymmetry, and a luscious, pastel palette – and author of eight of the most important French pictures at the Wallace Collection, including The Swing.
Born in Grasse, a city well-known for its perfume industry, Fragonard was the son of François Fragonard, a glove merchant of northern Italian descent. In about 1738, the family relocated to Paris, where the young Fragonard was enrolled as a clerk in a notary’s office.
However, according to the recollection of his grandson, he wished to do nothing else but draw, and eventually his parents allowed him to pursue his chosen vocation and become an artist. He studied as an apprentice, first to noted still-life painter Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), then to François Boucher, the powerful first painter to Louis XV, becoming the latter’s star pupil.
In 1752, Fragonard won the coveted Rome Prize, securing him a place at the French Academy in Rome to complete his artistic training in Italy, in the grand tradition of the Italian masters. Following additional years of preparatory study at the elite School of Protected Students, Fragonard was in Rome from 1756 to 1761.
During his time in Italy, alongside fellow artist Hubert Robert (1733–1808), he canvassed the Roman landscape for subject matter, and it is here that his profound interest in gardens and landscape originated. He would continue to develop this theme immediately after his return to France, in drawings and in paintings, such as the Wallace Collection’s Petit Parc (P379) and, of course, The Swing.
Although initially hailed as a painter in the French academic tradition, Fragonard stepped decisively away from the official art world by the late 1760s. Instead, he increasingly undertook lucrative work for private collectors, producing small-scale canvases, often of sentimental or domestic subjects.
Thereafter, the chronology of his career becomes more difficult to determine. The Wallace Collection possesses strong examples of his ‘post-academic’ style, including Dîtes donc s’il vous plaît (Say Please) (P404) and The Souvenir (P382). Practical reasons for this shift are discussed in ‘The Art World’ section.
It must also be said that he was undoubtedly subject to personal pressures due to the need to support a growing family: in 1769 he married Marie-Anne Gérard (1745–1806), also from the south of France, who made a name in her own right as a miniature painter (see the Wallace Collection’s M110). Fragonard was clearly a devoted family man.
It has been said that the Wallace Collection’s Boy as Pierrot (P412) portrays his son Alexandre-Evariste. While this has not been proven, his series of red-chalk drawings of young women probably do relate to his frail daughter, Rosalie. It is possible, for instance, that the artist included the detail of a parrot in the drawing now in the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts to amuse his child.
Like many artists of the 18th century, Fragonard’s reputation declined in the 19th. By the time of his death, the clean lines and morality of the neoclassical aesthetic had gained ascendance, displacing his more nuanced and Rococo style. However, his efforts were lovingly remembered through the work of his student and sister-in-law, Marguerite Gérard (1761–1837), who lived with Fragonard’s family from about 1775 onward (see M101).
An accomplished painter in her own right, Gérard celebrates Fragonard’s enduring influence in her Interesting Student, in which a young woman earnestly examines the print after The Fountain of Love, one of Fragonard’s most famous paintings (P394).