Born in 1732, Jean-Honoré Fragonard developed over the course of an illustrious a vigorous, unmistakable style that today is instantly associated with 18th-century France. Together with his predecessors François Boucher (who was also his teacher) and Antoine Watteau, Fragonard defined the Rococo aesthetic of painting during the late royal era in France, depicting joyously amorous couples, intimate genre scenes, exuberantly painted trees and flowers, and other irresistible subjects.
During studies at the École Royale des Élèves Protégés in Paris and the French Academy in Rome, Fragonard pursued the prestigious career path of an academic history painter—before developing a practice that attracted private clients rather than royal commissions. Prolific and curious, Fragonard perfected loose, vigorous brushwork that had been hitherto associated with oil sketches rather than finished paintings. Epitomized by his great series of 17 Fantasy Portraits (Figures de fantaisie), this technique epitomizes the immediacy and joie d’esprit that make his paintings as appealing today as they must have been to his ancien régime clients.
The French art historian Pierre Rosenberg has written that Fragonard “surpassed all the other artists of his time in depicting not the countryside, but a nature that is both grandiose and inviting, exuberant and overwhelming, familiar and mysterious.” This vision of the world suggests the Enlightenment ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and prefigures the grand Romantic landscapes soon to come.
An avid draftsman, Fragonard departed from the standard practice of creating drawings mostly as preparatory sketches for larger paintings—indeed, he often created autonomous drawings of subjects that were grander than paintings of the same subject.
A 2016 exhibition at The Met considered the career-long output of Fragonard’s works on paper, from early copies of the old-master paintings he saw on his sojourns in Rome to later genre scenes and allegorical subject matter.
Sketched in quick lines, then subsequently elaborated with chalks and washes of ink, these works attest to Fragonard’s keen eye and love of capturing both natural and figurative subjects.
Redolent of a bygone era yet enduringly appealing, this great artist created paintings that bespeak pure pleasure. Jean-Honoré Fragonard: joyeux anniversaire.