Progression of Art
The See-Saw is one of a pair of paintings intended to be seen together, both of which show popular games with sexual undertones; the pendant is Blind Man's Bluff, in which a girl peeks out from under her blindfold while a man approaches from behind. Blind Man's Bluff suggests courtship while The See-Saw, intended to be seen immediately afterward, suggests the consummation of the relationship. The See-Saw shows a young man and woman balanced on a plank of wood; the man's end of the plank is at the ground, flanked by two small children, while the woman is raised in the air, her hand catching hold of a branch above. The scene is largely framed by trees, with hints of blue sky and an architectural element visible in the background. At the base of the seesaw are the remnants of a picnic, including a wine bottle that has toppled over.
The garden was often used as a site for fantasy in 18th century painting and games such as these were familiar to contemporary audiences as sexual allegories. This painting was completed while Fragonard was a student of Boucher, who was known for his own paintings of such scenes. Fragonard's treatment of the scene is considerably subtler than those of Boucher, though audiences at the time would have recognized the double meaning in the ripe fruit and blossoming flowers alongside the see-saw itself and the posture of the young girl, who leans backward, her limbs outstretched; it is unclear, however, if the two children are intended as cupid figures or if they are included so as to imply the seduction of a governess. The painting showcases Fragonard's early mastery of many of the elements that would come to distinguish his work, including his use of bright colors, strong tonal contrasts and foliage as a framing element.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
The Bathers is dominated by a group of women, numbering roughly eight, framed by foliage in green and yellow and white clouds against a blue sky. The women are nude and shown bathing in a stream, with ripples of white water that are distinct in the lower left but create an indistinct boundary between bodies and foliage toward the center of the canvas. The bodies are shown in a range of different positions; some figures appear at rest in the ripples while others turn toward the figure at the canvas's centre, who raises her arms and appears to leap above the water, a pink cloth falling from her right hand.
In the 18th century, bathing scenes were often a pretext to show the nude in a variety of positions and from a range of angles, showcasing the painter's skill whilst also providing the viewer with a visual pleasure that verged toward the titillating. The painting showcases Fragonard's lightness in both theme and palette; the colors, in their gentleness, are suited toward their subject, imbuing the women with an innocence that heightens their appeal. The brushstrokes are loose and palpable, providing a sensuousness, physicality, and fluidity that contributes to the painting's liveliness. Fragonard stopped exhibiting his paintings in 1767, preferring to focus on work for private clients, and this is among the last to be displayed in an academic setting.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
The Swing is one of Fragonard's best-known works, a somewhat risqué composition depicting the mistress of the Baron de Saint-Julien. This young girl, positioned at the composition's centre, appears on a swing, wearing a pink dress. She is pushed by a smiling man, who does not realise another man is amongst the shrubs, looking up her skirt. She, however, appears to have engineered the scene, looking down at him as she moves through the air. The scene is set against an unruly forest crowded with statuary alongside people and plants. The girl's outstretched foot, from which a slipper flies, points at the most prominent sculpture, recognisable to viewers as Etienne-Maurice Falconet's Menacing Cupid.
The subject, a girl on a swing pushed by a husband while a lover looked from the bushes and a shoe flew from the foot, was dictated to the painter by the Baron de Saint-Julien; Fragonard transforms the scene from a licentious allegory into a commentary on the transience of pleasure through the specifics of his composition. The swing, in the 18th century, was generally read as a sexual metaphor, due to the rhythm of movement and the positioning of the body, with extended legs, at the moment when the swing's arc reached its climax; the loss of a shoe often symbolized the loss of innocence. The Swing is composed to direct the eye in such a way that the narrative is revealed gradually, following the motion of the swing from husband to lover, and framed as if a scene in a play, encouraging viewers to take pleasure in their intrusion into a private moment, approaching it as if it is performed for them.
Menacing Cupid, a sculpture that carried its own complicated history and set of associations, adds a serious note to the composition, with the permanence of marble serving as a reminder that time can be cruel with regard to love; the sensual pleasure celebrated in the painting is, like the climax of a moving swing, momentary and unsustainable. The young woman on the swing appears as if a flower, her skirts like petals, echoing in color and texture those in the shrubbery below, suggesting that she, like a bloom, will fade after being plucked. Her beauty is made more valuable by its imminent loss; she is momentarily illuminated but will fall away from the light as her arc reverses. The garden, a space outside the artificial rules of society, was associated with freedom and the natural, heightening this thematic depth whilst allowing Fragonard to create drama through contrasts in light and shade.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom
This portrait, likely of Louis François Prault, a publisher in Paris, is one of a series that are now known as the 'Fantasy Figures.' The Writer shows a man, dressed in a historical costume consisting of a yellow and red shirt with white ruff and cuffs, secured with a black bow hanging loosely at the chest, posed with quill and open book at a desk. The figure turns away from the desk and looks toward the right-hand side of the canvas, giving an impression of spontaneity and confidence. In this painting, as in others from the same series, the figures appear as archetypes rather than individuals, shown engaged in activities or with accessories that indicate their profession, and posed in theatrical dress that serves to unify the group and create a suggestion of performance.
Fragonard reportedly painted each of these portraits in only an hour and the speed with which they were executed contributes to the freshness and virtuosity of the brushstrokes. It is easy for the viewer to make out individual movements of the brush, capturing the loose folds of the shirt sleeve or the zig-zag of the cuff with fluidity. The colors are bright and intensely concentrated, particularly across the figure's shirt. In The Writer and other works in this series, the energy of the painter's process imbues the figures with a liveliness and immediacy of personality.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
The Progress of Love: Love Letters
Love Letters is the last of four panels Fragonard painted for the Comtesse du Barry's pavilion at Louveciennes. This series, The Progress of Love, illustrates the stages of a romantic relationship through pursuit, meeting, commitment and friendship. The iconography of each panel is very dense and is facilitated by the garden setting in which the surrounding sculpture, animals and plants carry meaning in accordance with established tradition. In Love Letters, a man and a woman are shown reading letters while tenderly embracing, suggesting reminiscence of early courtship from a position of greater security; at their feet is a spaniel, signifying fidelity, and they are watched over by a statue personifying friendship, who refuses to surrender the heart she holds at her chest to the cupid that reaches for it.
The Progress of Love series showcases Fragonard's sense of rhythm in narrative and ability to create and resolve dramatic tension through the settings in which his figures are placed. In Love Letter, a break in the foliage above serves both to direct the audience's eye toward the central couple and to illuminate them. The composition is framed by elements including flowers, foliage and statuary, all of which clarify the central meaning whilst retaining the viewer's focus. This is the panel in which the narrative reaches resolution and this is reflected in the sky and trees; the dark clouds and rustling branches of earlier panels have given way to the restful glow of a calm twilight. It is this attention to mood, rendered through subtle shifts in light and the texture of brushstrokes, that set Fragonard's work above that of his contemporaries.
This series was ultimately rejected by the Comtesse du Barry, likely due to the contrast with the architectural setting for which it was intended. Fragonard later installed The Progress of Love in the Villa Maubert in Grasse, adding additional panels, including a fifth, The Abandoned One, that shifted the narrative considerably, transforming the girl from an exemplar to a victim of love.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The Frick Collection, New York, New York
The Fête at Saint Cloud
This large canvas, designed as the centerpiece for a group of five paintings on the theme of play, is among Fragonard's most ambitious works, engaging with issues of class and eighteen-century theories of the spectacle and memory. The Fête at Saint-Cloud shows a public fair held in the grounds of a chateau; crowds in varied styles of dress mill around multiple street theatres, a man with a monkey and vendors selling toys. Near the painting's center is a fountain, spouting water high above these entertainments, and the scene is framed by billowing clouds and trees that dwarf the gathering. The viewer is positioned outside the scene, looking upon the crowd from afar, but is also, by virtue of the painting's size, encouraged to psychologically enter into the world that it represents, moving closer to focus on individual elements.
The Fête at Saint Cloud can be linked to the tradition of the fête-galante common in the 18th century, but contributes a growing self-consciousness and engagement with intellectual issues. In the painting, the fair is considered not simply as a site for pleasure, but rather as a space in which questions of class are made manifest, drawing upon the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other theorists; the crowd depicted contains people from a range of backgrounds and alludes, through the figures in costume, to the way in which spectacle could disguise social position and dissolve individual identity into the collective. Fragonard's sensuous brushwork invited the viewer to engage with the painting on an emotional level, also, encouraging the projection of personal memories of such fairs onto the scene, prompting reflections on the power of art to provide ideal experiences that can evoke and transcend those in life. The Fête at Saint-Cloud anticipates social questions that would become central after the Revolution, while the composition itself, in which humanity is dwarfed by nature, with dramatic use of light and strong contrast, creates a sensation of being overwhelmed that would be explored by Romantic painters in the following century.
Oil on canvas - Banque de France
Fragonard's use of a dark palette, filling the canvas with blacks, reds and golds, imbues The Bolt with heightened drama. The painting is an interior scene, with the main light source apparently just right of the canvas edge, illuminating the central couple and the bolt that gives the work its name. A man, dressed in white shirt and shorts, facing away from the viewer, reaches for this lock with his right hand, using his left arm to sweep a woman, in a yellow dress toward him; she leans her head backward and to her right, toward the viewer and the light. There is, to the left of the woman, a bed with white sheets and a red canopy, shrouded in shadow.
The Bolt is intended as an illustration of profane love, pendant to The Adoration of the Shepherds, painted two years earlier, which illustrates sacred love. The circumstances of the encounter in The Bolt are ambiguous; the questions of the man's motivation and whether the woman is acquiescing by choice or force are left unclear. The objects surrounding the pair, however, indicate the aftermath of the moment captured in the painting. The bed is in a state of disorder and the room is scattered with erotic symbols, including an upturned chair, flowers and fruit and the bolt itself, all of which would have been easily readable to an 18th-century audience. The Bolt is striking for its chiaroscuro and its reduced palette, indicating a shift away from the sumptuous Rococo forms and colors for which he is predominantly known and showcasing his mastery of composition and narrative staging. Fragonard's brushstrokes are less pronounced in this image; the increased realism and the comparatively spare, shadowy backdrop can be seen as both an attempt to transition toward Neoclassicism and an anticipation of 19th-century Romanticism.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris, France