Jean-Honore Fragonard was the last painter out of the pleiad of the most outstanding artists of Rococo style. What kind of associations does his cheerful name evoke, and what do we feel when we hear his name? There’s elegance bordering on frivolity. And there’s frivolity without turning into vulgarity. Swings, perfumes, kisses…
Fragonard was born in Grasse, a provincial town in the South of France. The town of Grasse specialized in leather tanning, and nowadays it is widely known as the world's perfume capital. The most interesting thing was that the artist’s father, Francois Fragonard, experienced this change on his own skin, so to speak.
The point was that Francois was a tanner. The kid gloves made by him were unbelievably successful in Grasse, but the local people’s taste was getting more finicky with each day: the aroma of genuine leather seemed to be “too much” to them. Fragonard Sr. was one of the first to soak calfskin in rose oil, he learned to make gloves smell of sandalwood or vanilla. Gradually, from being a glover, he turned into a successful perfumer. Parisian high society willingly bought his perfumes.
So the now famous Grasse perfume factory “Fragonard” and the Parisian perfumery museum of the same name bear the artist’s name not only because he admired grace and luxury in his paintings or because he glorified the town by the very fact of his birth, but also because without the contribution of his father Grass would not have become the perfume capital.
Jean-Honore was 6 years old when, after the death of his younger brother, the family moved to Paris. At the age of 16, his father appointed Fragonard to be a clerk assistant. He, obviously, didn’t want his son to follow his path of being just a tanner. But young Fragonard hardly delved into the intricacies of jurisprudence. For days on end, the only thing he was doing was drawing his coworkers and visitors of the office. Eventually, his boss got fed up with that and made a suggestion to Fragonard’s father: “I can get him in to Monsieur Boucher’s workshop if you don’t mind.”
One could only dream about that. Francois Boucher was the most fashionable and most sought-after metropolitan artist, a decorator of the royal chambers and the beloved artist of the all-powerful Madame de Pompadour. Boucher stated that Fragonard, of course, was a capable young man, but he lacked experience, so it was better for him to work in the Chardin workshop at first.
The wonderful genre painter Chardin was known as a decent and very modest man. He was considered to be an excellent teacher, but it was hard to imagine that the temperamental (he was originally from Provence!), ardent and still very young Fragonard could seriously be blown away by the quiet charm of Chardin’s genre painting, for instance, his “сooks” or “laundresses”. Fragonard cleaned the master’s palette and copied his work without inspiration, and after just six months, Boucher took him back, noting that Fragonard received many necessary skills.
Studying and working under the supervision of Boucher made Fragonard happy. Unrestrained decorativeness, inventiveness and constant improvisations, sensuality and hedonism of the teacher’s style - Fragonard felt all this to be his own element. He mimicked his teacher’s style in such a talented manner that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish whether the painting was made by Boucher or by Fragonard.
Looking a little bit ahead, it is important to say that the Rococo style found its highest manifestation in Fragonard and it also found its ending. The artist became the direct heir to the French Rococo virtuosos of two previous generations - Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher. Fragonard did not strive to get Watteau’s melancholy, sophistication and psychologism, but he compensated those things with his infectious and sparkling cheerfulness. He was inferior to Boucher in decorativeness, but he was the best at the expression and ingenuity of painting.
At the age of 20, Fragonard received the Grand Prix of the academic competition for the historical painting “Jeroboam Sacrificing to Idols.” It meant that he could be sent to study at the French Academy in Rome. But before that, Fragonard was obliged to take a course at the school which was led by Carle van Loo. He spent another four years on improving the knowledge of anatomy, drawing and coloristics.
Finally, in 1756, Fragonard was in Rome. There he became friends with another pensioner of the Academy, the artist Hubert Robert, the future “master of ruins.” Together they studied Roman antiquities, travelled around Italy and got acquainted with private collections of French aristocrats. It was rather funny that only in Italy Fragonard was able to appreciate all the picturesque appeal of ... laundering - that was exactly what he had once frivolously rejected from Chardin. But later, Fragonard and Robert were fascinated watching the Italian laundresses washing clothes in ancient pools. The dilapidated villas offered the same exotic view: women rinsed their clothes right in the fountains and hung them on trees and statues. Laundry surrounded by ruins was the subject of Fragonard’s painting “The Laundresses”.
Fragonard had always been the soul of the company. He was distinguished by a light and cheerful disposition, courtesy and a good sense of humor. Everyone loved the artist and simply called him “Frago”. When Fragonard returned to Paris, an important person appeared in his life - Abbot of Saint-Non. He was rich, was fond of engraving, but was best known as a philanthropist. Because of his generosity, Fragonard traveled all over Italy from Ferrara to Florence, from Verona to Venice and from Vicenza to Piacenza. Frago came back to Paris as a famous artist.
Fragonard almost immediately realized that his true vocation was to make paintings of a playful erotic nature. However, an official career required to prove himself in a serious genre. With that in mind, he made a painting “Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirhoe”, but then he decided to become an academician. Private practice and commissions at those times offered more profit than the difficult climbing up the hierarchical career ladder under the patronage of the government.
Fragonard’s style was light, sophisticated and festive, and it found many admirers all around the world. The favorite of the King Marquise Du Barry commissioned him “Love Adventures” - a series of several huge paintings. Fragonard accepted commissions for portraits and landscapes. But they didn’t become iconic things made by the artist. Most of all, Fragonard was famous for his piquant scenes - gallant (“The Stolen Kiss”, “The Swing”) or completely erotic ones (“The shirt removed” (or “The Lady Undressing”), “Girl with a dog”, “The Lock”).
In 1769, Fragonard met Marie Anna Gerard. They had a lot in common. Just like Fragonard, the girl came to Paris from Grasse. Her father was a perfumer. And she, too, dreamed of making money as an artist - Marie Anna was a watercolorist. Fragonard offered to give the pretty watercolor painter several lessons, and she, with purely French spontaneity, immediately moved in with him. Before they welcomed to the world their daughter Rosalie, Anna Marie and Jean-Honore had got married.
The artist's contemporaries claimed that their marriage was quite happy. They had another child, Alexandre-Evariste, who also became a successful artist. However, Anna Marie herself (and well-intentioned) broke the serenity of the family idyll when she invited her younger sister, 14-year-old Margarita Gerard, to their home. Margarita became the most capable and diligent student of Fragonard, by the age of 24 she was considered one of the most famous French artists. Of course, she and Fragonard, who were separated by an almost 30-year-old age difference, could not be able to prove that they were connected only by work. Anna Marie would suffer from jealousy. But even after the death of her sister and her husband, Margarita never confirmed that there was an intimate relationship between her and Fragonard.
Then the Revolution broke out in France. From the point of view of its ideologists, all of Fragonard’s work devoted to indulging the whims of the aristocracy was perceived as the embodiment of the excesses and immoderation associated with the decomposition of the aristocracy and the monarchy. Fragonard’s student, Jacques-Louis David, defended his teacher during the massacre and found him a position in the administration of the Louvre.
The end of Fragonard's life was bleak. He was fired from the Louvre. The big blow was the death of his 18-year-old daughter, Rosalie. His son, Alexandre-Evariste, made a career as an artist and longed to be free from any comparisons with his famous father, and therefore ceased communication with him. The creativity of Fragonard himself was in the shadow of the work of neoclassicists. Rococo trend was over.
On a bright day of August in 1806, a little plump handsome old man entered one of the Parisian pastry shops and ordered ice cream. The sun was shining, and the visitor dozed off. The cafe employees knew that that was their regular, Monsieur Fragonard, and therefore did not wake him up, they let him rest instead. After a couple of hours, it became clear that the visitor was not sleeping - he was dead. Death in the gentle rays of the sun in anticipation of ice cream - it was difficult to come up with a more suitable end for the last artist of the Rococo style.