Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2018
Perrin Stein Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. 329 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781588396013)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, October 6, 2016–January 8, 2017

The French eighteenth century, an era often derided and dismissed as frivolous and libertine, has been experiencing a revival by scholars in the last three decades, with the prolific artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) occupying a singular position in the period’s rehabilitation. Fragonard has been the subject of at least four major monographic shows in the last three years—including the recent Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures (2017) at the National Gallery of Art and Fragonard Amoureux: Galant et Libertin (2015–16) at the Musée du Luxembourg. While his dazzling paint handling and prominent commissions—one thinks of The Progress of Love at the Frick Collection—have garnered greater attention, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s intimate and jewel-like exhibition Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant, and the accompanying catalogue, offer a distinct vantage point by focusing on his virtuoso draftsmanship. Edited by Perrin Stein, curator in the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, the publication demonstrates that unlike those of many of his contemporaries, few of Fragonard’s drawings can be considered preparatory. For example, approximately one-third of Fragonard’s graphic output is literary illustration, but none of these works were engraved. In fact, as evidenced by a small selection included in the catalogue, illustrations inspired by Jean de La Fontaine’s Les Contes and many of the 179-plus drawings inspired by Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, with their loose handling and atmospheric effects, were not aesthetically suitable for translation into prints. Instead, such works force us to consider drawings as independent expressions of Fragonard’s artistic impulse.

Spanning the artist’s career, drawings in red and black chalks and wash, watercolors, gouaches, and etchings are positioned as contingent pieces in the puzzle of his practice across the three essays and one hundred catalogue entries. A beautifully illustrated chronology at the beginning of the publication offers readers an overview of Fragonard’s biography and career, alongside major historical events, emphasizing the importance of chronology in Fragonard scholarship generally and for this project more particularly. Indeed, chronology becomes a leitmotif throughout this catalogue, which offers new dating of various drawings and seeks to address problems of historiography in Fragonard’s oeuvre and practice.

Fragonard is both a product of his social and cultural milieu and a modern anomaly. At a time when the Académie Royale dominated art production, Fragonard worked outside its structures for the majority of his career, refusing to exhibit in the Salon after 1767. In certain particular—and peculiar—ways, his biography and the attention he garnered during his own lifetime feel very much to be those of a “modern” artist. An enduring debate with his patron, Pierre Jacques Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt, over who owned the drawings Fragonard made on a voyage to Italy financed by Bergeret is, essentially, an intellectual-property dispute in modern parlance. It cannot be denied that there is an aura around this artist—created, in part, by the long-standing myth purporting that the many amorous, at times even bawdy, scenes he depicted have their roots in his own life—that has made him the subject of much interest and speculation, both scholarly and salacious. Confronting the myth’s legacy head-on in her first essay, while acknowledging its lasting impacts on Fragonard scholarship, Stein refocuses the discourse around the artist’s drawing practices and the changing status of drawings in the visual culture of the French eighteenth century.

Following Stein’s in-depth exploration of drawing culture in eighteenth-century France, Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey offers a broad account of the relationship between drawing and painting in Fragonard’s corpus, focusing on his graphic techniques in different works. She notes that scientific studies of Fragonard’s paintings have not revealed much in the way of underdrawing, further underscoring the notion that he did not work out compositions in drawings to then execute them in another medium, but that each medium offered him certain possibilities as he composed directly on the paper, panel, or canvas. Dupuy-Vachey’s discussion of Fragonard’s treatment of a single subject through a painting, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (ca. 1761–62), and two related drawings, offers a fruitful exploration of how Fragonard developed his ideas and experimented with various compositions. Dupuy-Vachey also considers the role of copying after old-master paintings in Fragonard’s formation. This survey of the types of drawings in Fragonard’s oeuvre lays the groundwork for Stein’s subsequent essay, which seeks to upend the discourse around originals, copies, and multiples. This important contribution considers both the mechanical aspects of various techniques and their aesthetic implications.

The authors’ thorough discussion of Fragonard’s artistic practices and the terminology used to describe them—original, copy, replica, repetition, and so forth—has lasting implications for scholars of both early-modern drawing and the French eighteenth century. Rather than trading in traditional notions of an original work of art containing the genesis of artistic inspiration and its copies, which replicate the work formally but not necessarily creatively, the discussion suggests that Fragonard should be seen as offering variations on a theme or motif. He returned to a given subject not to replicate it exactly but to interpret it anew. This is highlighted by his additions and alterations to counterproofs of certain red-chalk drawings that served as a jumping-off point for a new composition rather than an inverted duplicate.

One of the major contributions of this catalogue is the reinsertion of etching into a consideration of drawing. Stein integrates etchings into a larger discourse about drawings’ forms and functions in Fragonard’s oeuvre in an essay exploring the status of drawing in the eighteenth century. Rather than rehearsing the oft-repeated trope of drawing’s fundamental role in artistic training in the Académie Royale, Stein offers a discussion of the shift in collecting practices that began to include, if not focus on, drawings as an independent medium. Though she emphasizes the collecting of drawings by eighteenth-century artists, it should be noted that it was in this period that French collectors began voraciously acquiring old-master drawings as well. Increasingly, drawings were valued for what they revealed about the artist—the première pensée or the touch of the genius—rather than for their association with famous paintings. Auction prices and collection records testify to this emerging interest. Similarly, drawings by contemporary artists became valuable for the access they granted to the creative artistic process rather than as evidence of the various stages that ultimately led to the “work of art,” typically a painting. Likewise, the treatment of old-master drawings—framed, glazed, and displayed on the wall alongside paintings—in various private collections of art lovers (amateurs) precipitated the collecting and similar treatment of drawings by contemporary artists.

The catalogue section offers a deeper look at Fragonard’s drawings not only through balanced observations on the materiality and techniques of various works with their sociohistorical context and importance, but also through comparative figures. Fragonard’s engagement with old-master works is demonstrated visually by the placement of his copies next to these masterpieces, which were beyond the scope of the exhibition. Various catalogue entries also pay close attention to Fragonard’s distinct uses of different media, as well as certain recurring forms and motifs. (Two late additions to the exhibition, both recently (re-)discovered works from private collections, were not included in the catalogue, though they are both illustrated as comparative figures. Each was the subject of a blog post by Stein, available on the Met’s website and serving as a great complement to the catalogue.) Perhaps most effective is the treatment of related works in groupings, which allows for a deeper discussion of Fragonard’s processes and artistic choices through specific case studies. The standout example is Stein’s discussion of Le Petit Parc. The quasi-symmetrical Italian garden with two trees curving toward one another to form an arch appears in six iterations, five of which were included in the show. (The sixth is a painting in the Wallace Collection in London.) Two red-chalk drawings, one pen-and-brown-ink drawing, one etching, and one gouache are treated as a series. Rather than attempting to trace a linear progression across the five works on paper, Stein considers this a series of meditations on a given theme, one that clearly captured the artist’s imagination over a period of about four years. In returning to the subject repeatedly, Fragonard offered new perspectives on the scene and developed different elements—alternately emphasizing the landscape or the figures. At times these variations capitalize on the different potentials of each medium, but more frequently they just illustrate the artist’s avid imagination. For example, in one of the two works in red chalk Fragonard astutely leaves the highlights in reserve and utilizes the tone of the sheet itself for the brighter areas. In thinking about these works and other such groupings, Stein returns to a consideration of the artist’s various preoccupations in each work, recomposing them as a sort of puzzle to better understand Fragonard as an artist.

Too often exhibition catalogues serve only as a record of the exhibition—documenting its contents but little more. Such an approach would be somewhat justified in a case such as the magnificent Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant exhibition, in which approximately half the works were from private collections that are neither well known nor easily accessible to scholars or the general public. This publication, however, goes beyond this basic service by contributing fundamentally to our understanding of Fragonard’s artistic practice and the myriad functions of drawings that are so often overlooked, making clear that drawings are works of art in their own right that ultimately offer an important point of departure for understanding artistic practices in eighteenth-century France. 

Daniella Berman
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University