Hedonism and ecstasy: Fragonard’s The Sacrifice
of the Rose.
Passion: Fragonard’s Allegories of Love and Printed
Art Institute, through Jan. 21
cavort in pleasure gardens, stealing kisses and significant
looks; angels descend to Earth to encourage pleasures. Putti
with pink cheeks and absurdly dimpled bottoms swirl in the
sky and at the feet of enraptured young women. Jean-Honoré
Fragonard’s images of rococo love and sugar-spun flirtation
could send a viewer into diabetic shock. But the paintings
and etchings in Consuming Passion, from the 1770s and
’80s, show that during the later part of his career, Fragonard
left behind themes of artificial courtship and partook of
the new ideals of romantic love.
The confectionary imagery of art in the late 1700s reflected
the decadence and venality of an aristocracy whose excesses
ultimately led to the French Revolution. And Fragonard’s reputation
has been a casualty of revolution politics: It’s easy to see
him as a cipher for the aristocracy for whom he worked, decorating
the salons of the likes of Madame du Barry. But in this show,
curated by Richard Rand, the Clark presents him as a painter
who presaged neoclassical and romantic painters like David
and Prud’hon. This argument sees him in a line extending to
the impressionists, especially Renoir (another purveyor of
the pink-cheeked maiden, and a popular artist at the Clark).
Passion contains about two dozen of Fragonard’s etchings,
drawings and works in oil from major museums and private collectors.
The focus is on his Allegories of Love, a series that imagines
lovers in classically themed moments of intense emotion. They
present darker backgrounds and more dramatic compositions
than one might expect from the Fragonard of the flouncing
pastorals and cheeky maids. Writes Andrei Molotiu in his book
Fragonard’s Allegories of Love, “Over a period at the
very center of which fall Fragonard’s Allegories of Love .
. . a whole new paradigm of love was constructed.” This, of
course, was “Romantic” love, a “consuming,” divine state.
The Allegories portray a promise (The Oath of Love,
1780); a woman in orgasmic rapture (The Sacrifice of the
Rose, 1785-88); and other idealized states. Multiple versions
of each work are on display, making it easy to see Fragonard’s
process. In a whisper-light study of The Invocation of
Love (1781) with sepia ink and wash, a woman in flowing
classical garb supplicates at a statue of Eros, her body a
beautiful rush of desire. In a more precisely limned graphite
version, the melodrama is heightened as the woman’s garments
echo the wild overgrowth of the foliage, contrasting with
the statue’s formality.
Representing Fragonard’s earlier, less broody mode are works
such as The Waterworks (1765-70), a drawing showing
a partly undressed woman in bed being sprayed by two hoses,
and the similarly themed Useless Resistance (c. 1770),
which shows a semi-nude coquette pillow-fighting with a boy.
But even in his later, supposedly more serious allegories,
the element of titillation is ever-present. Is all this creamy
dreaminess just so much high-toned erotica, or does it have
a ‘higher’ worth? What is certain is that Fragonard provides
visceral insights into the imagination of prerevolutionary
Jean-Honoré Fragonard was the son of a family of shopkeepers
and glovemakers in Grasse, in the south of France (a perfumery
there now bears his name). He was apprenticed to François
Boucher and Jean-Siméon Chardin and traveled to Italy, gaining
approval by the Académie Royale in 1765, but he did not continue
to seek their acceptance. He largely abandoned the neo-baroque
style that gained him entrance into the academy and instead
chose to sell decorative paintings to private collectors.
Whether he did so for purely monetary reasons or whether aesthetics
played a part is still a matter that critics ponder. It’s
a claim of seriousness that’s at stake: Is it a sign of a
lesser talent that he went for the money? Talent certainly
isn’t the issue: He was gifted enough to know his audience,
and inventiveness is evidenced by his Warrior (c.
1770), a charismatic oil owned by the Clark, known as a “fantasy
portrait,” a genre coined by Fragonard. He was said to have
taken only an hour to complete the painting.
The other exhibit here, tied to Consuming Passion,
is Printed Love, a wonderful room of illustrated books,
etchings and engravings from the same period. Among these
works is a gorgeous engraving of Zephyr and Psyche
by Louis Michel Halbou (1795, after Jean Michel Moreau Le
Jeune) illustrating Jean de La Fontaine’s book Les Amours
de Psyche et Cupidon; and a deliciously vampiric engraving
by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Phrosine and Mélidore (in
a 1797 book). With an impressive range of compositions and
moods, this room of works conveys a wider sense of visual
life during the end of the 18th century in France. Perhaps
because they are not pretending to be ‘great’ works of art,
these printed engravings and etchings are easier to enjoy
for their charm.
Ideals of romantic love notwithstanding, it’s hard to see
aristocratic art and life in prerevolutionary France as anything
but excessively hedonistic. Still, it’s worth seeing firsthand
Fragonard’s various interpretations of love, and the many
insights in Printed Love show the rapid development
of an intoxicating idea that has followed us into the 21st