Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2021
Satish Padiyar Fragonard: Painting out of Time London: Reaktion Books, 2020. 248 pp.; 114 color ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781789142099)

Like the Rococo style his work came to epitomize, the artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s life was seemingly unpredictable, liberated, and characterized by constant change. Fragonard (1732–1806) began his career by winning the coveted Prix de Rome, and in 1761 he presented an ambitious history painting as his reception piece to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The painting placed the young artist in high ranking within the elite establishment, but after such success he unexpectedly turned away from public life as an academic painter, prioritizing instead inconsistent commissions from private clients and working in artistic styles that the Académie viewed as lowly, such as genre scenes. Nevertheless, Fragonard found financial success, producing hundreds of paintings and drawings for aristocratic patrons. But in 1792, just as suddenly as he diverged from the Académie, Fragonard ceased creating art and began overseeing the care of the historic collection at the Louvre.

In Fragonard: Painting out of Time, Satish Padiyar asks why Fragonard pursued an untraditional artistic life and made unanticipated career choices. Because Fragonard’s own words and records are lost—or undiscovered—and the artist’s contemporaries rarely mentioned him in writing, Padiyar attempts to uncover “the deeper forces at play” in Fragonard’s artistic career and life (12) by exploring three prevalent themes in both his oeuvre and biography, which the author organizes into three chapters: “Secrets,” “Surprise,” and “Dreams.” In each chapter, Padiyar suggests a congruence between Fragonard’s artistic subject matter and personality. Rather than analyzing the formal characteristics of his oeuvre, Padiyar offers these themes as a way to explore the artist’s creative process. The chapters propose that Fragonard “paint[ed] out of time” by attempting to define his own unconventional position within the world of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century art.

In chapter 1, “Secrets,” Padiyar asks why Fragonard, “a once-prodigious painter,” stopped producing (21). The author argues that there are dominant visual elements within Fragonard’s body of work that suggest the artist was ill-suited for both the public life of the Académie and the sociable, personality-driven lifestyle of a freelance artist. Indeed, it was possible for an artist—such as Hubert Robert—to find success within the worlds of public and private art commissions, but Fragonard, Padiyar seems to suggest, was a complex man who shunned both communities. Padiyar establishes Fragonard’s character traits through an analysis of the artist’s four known self-portraits, produced during the period just before his output came to a halt. In these drawings, Fragonard presents himself as uncomfortable with the world he inhabits, a trait Padiyar identifies as salient to Fragonard’s character and artistic choices, especially in the artist’s rejection of the Académie’s ideological preferences for the grand style (large history paintings rendered with idealized forms), which Fragonard put into play with the petit style (genre scenes with intimate, naturalistic forms). Padiyar suggests that Fragonard’s small stature and reserved nature drove the artist’s interest in the petit style. In interpreting Fragonard’s fantasy portraits, Padiyar elucidates the artist’s uneasiness with social hierarchies and desire to withdraw from society. Citing the artist’s stylistic variation across his oeuvre, tendency to rework compositions, and overall interest in painting subjects centered around notions of secrecy, Padiyar argues that Fragonard “erased” or hid himself (65). Because Fragonard’s paintings lacked the “aesthetic transparency” central to the popular style of the late eighteenth century—as epitomized by the works of Jacques-Louis David—and the artist himself was secretive and reclusive, Padiyar concludes that it was only natural for Fragonard to retire from artistic production (74).

Padiyar takes up the notion of surprise in the second chapter. Focusing on three of Fragonard’s best-known paintings of surprise—The Swing (1767), The Progress of Love cycle (1771–72), and The Bolt (1778)Padiyar argues that he “paint[ed] under the sign of surprise” by incorporating it into his subject matter and artistic process (116). Fragonard rebelled against the routines and rituals of the Académie—what Padiyar refers to as “Academy Time” (93)—not only by pursuing a career as a freelance artist subject to picky patrons, such as Madame du Barry, but also by painting the unpredictable, rendering the exciting and immobilizing moment of surprise. Although he was working against the Académie’s discipline, Fragonard’s paintings ironically embody the aesthetic theories espoused by the institution, especially those of Roger de Piles, who promoted the pleasures of being surprised and “struck all at once” (105). Fragonard employed exuberant brushwork and innovative compositions to capture the feeling of astonishment within the painted scene and elicit the same in the viewer. Through his lived experience working for private clients and the formal qualities rendered on his canvases, Fragonard occupied a liminal space and time that was neither entirely part of nor independent from the Académie. And Padiyar argues that this tension between abandon and restraint defines both Fragonard’s oeuvre and his artistic career.

Chapter 3, “Dreams,” explores Fragonard’s lifelong practice of drawing. Padiyar proposes that through drawing, Fragonard found not only liberation from the strictures of the Académie and aristocratic society but also a form of self-expression. The artist’s relationship with the medium mirrored the transformation of eighteenth-century French understanding and valuation of drawings. Initially a mere part of the Académie’s artistic curriculum, by midcentury drawings were seen as “autonomous aesthetic object[s]” through which artists expressed their sensibilities (151). Padiyar analyzes three of Fragonard’s depictions of draftsmen to trace the evolution of his relationship to the medium. At first overwhelmed by the monotony of drawing from models and masterpieces, in addition to the unconnected, impersonal ideas he felt were garnered through the medium, Fragonard ultimately found expressive freedom by drawing revelries in a dreamlike style. Padiyar notes, however, that drawing never entirely freed Fragonard from the hierarchical structure of the Académie and aristocratic society; during this period, the technique was part of sociable discourse and ritual. Employing Sigmund Freud’s definition of daydreaming, Padiyar argues that Fragonard created and maintained an illusion of liberation by imbuing his drawings with fantastical elements, creating a world that ultimately reflected his personal preferences and identity.

Beautifully written and illustrated, this book offers a new perspective on a well-studied artist. In his analysis, Padiyar pushes past the impasse resulting from a lack of textual primary sources written by and about Fragonard and engages the artist’s oeuvre as the ultimate evidence. While this is a valuable turn in methodology, it proves a bit problematic when the author assumes repeatedly that the artist transparently revealed his character within his art. Padiyar admits that other artists, such as Robert, mastered the art of artistic performance, cleverly pleasing their patrons through both social interactions and painted displays. Could Fragonard also have performed in his creations? Padiyar suggests that Fragonard’s temperament was not well suited to the social rituals mandated by eighteenth-century aristocratic society, but how do we as historians conclusively decipher his personality from his artworks? After all, the fact that he was financially secure and celebrated among his patrons indicates that, at least to some extent, he played according to the rules of the game. Padiyar notes primarily examples of the poor relationships Fragonard incurred with patrons; he also rightfully identifies that Fragonard created in numerous visual styles. However, one wonders if Fragonard intentionally employed different styles as a means of performance and play, appealing to his audience. Or must Fragonard’s choices in style and subject always reflect his character? Acknowledging these questions and methodological challenges—rigorously analyzed since the 1990s, notably by Mary D. Sheriff, Jennifer Milam, and Guillaume Faroult—would have strengthened Padiyar’s analysis.

On the other hand, the author convincingly argues that Fragonard engaged purposefully the visual theories of de Piles, who encouraged artists to consider their art’s psychological impact on their audiences. By connecting Fragonard and de Piles, however, Padiyar seems to work against his own argument, which considers the artist’s character and personal desires to be the primary motivations for his aesthetic and artistic choices, rather than the intention to move his viewer. This focus on the painter’s biography and conjectures about his personal traits omit the fact that eighteenth-century artists typically produced art to elicit certain responses from their patrons rather than as mere expressions of their desires or feelings.

Overall, Fragonard: Painting out of Time is a fascinating study and will appeal to specialists and general audiences alike. Padiyar captures the complexities of one of the most recognizable, albeit mysterious, eighteenth-century European artists and presents him in a relatable manner: as an individual trying to make sense of his own place in a society that did not suit him. Throughout his career, Fragonard was stuck in limbo; he fit in neither with the social expectations of the Académie nor with the aristocratic circle of his patrons. He was a bit old-fashioned, only beginning to work in the Rococo style at midcentury, but was also ahead of his time, rebelling against state-sanctioned practices and creating art that, in many ways, anticipated the expressive qualities of late nineteenth-century art making. Indeed, the Fragonard captured by Padiyar is “out of time,” painting to the proverbial beat of his own drum, struggling to find his niche in the world he inhabits, and creating an oeuvre that brings viewers into an “out of time, fantasy world” (15).

Joanna M. Gohmann
Provenance Researcher & Object Historian, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art