2016-11-03 21:06:16
Art Review: Rococo Bad Boy Rebels in ‘Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant’

Among the 18th century’s lesser-known declarations of independence was that of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the Rococo artist who was a rising star of the French Academy system when he decided, rather abruptly, that he’d had enough of it. As we see in “Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant — Works From New York Collections” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this rebellion took place largely on paper, in sprightly strokes of red chalk and splashes of brown wash that were, in form and spirit, the opposite of the history paintings he had been trained to produce.

This act of defiance was enabled — rewarded, really — by a new culture of collecting. Eighteenth-century patrons valued drawings as original, finished works, and auction records show that they were priced accordingly. A connoisseur of Fragonard said, in a letter quoted in the show’s catalog, “His good drawings cost their weight in gold and they are worth it.”

As a tale of an artist’s betting on this robust private market, the Met’s show evokes today’s collector-focused art world. But there are many more compelling reasons to see it, including some truly masterly works on paper and a more holistic, down-to-earth look at an artist best known for his whimsically erotic, decidedly upper-class cabinet paintings. That’s revelatory given Fragonard’s current reputation as a painter of frivolous genre scenes, works that are ripe for scornful reinterpretation by contemporary artists. (I’m thinking, here, of Yinka Shonibare’s take on “The Swing,” Fragonard’s mischievous garden fantasy in which a crouching young man gazes up the skirt of his swaying lover.)

Certainly, there are some similarly comical and risqué themes in Fragonard’s works on paper; in his wash-and-chalk drawing “The Indiscreet Bull,” for example, an impertinent animal gawks at a shepherd who is making a move on a farm girl, and in his commercially successful etching “The Armoire,” enraged parents burst in on their daughter and her lover (who has tried to hide in a cabinet). Yet there are also scenes that combine Rococo flourishes with a sense of life and movement and atmosphere that comes from direct observation, as in two drawings Fragonard made of the communal bread ovens near the chateau of one of his patrons. Women hefting giant mounds of dough on their heads hover around the fire, forming a kind of assembly line with the bakers who work the oven with long paddles.

Organized by Perrin Stein, a curator of drawings and prints at the Met, the exhibition begins with Fragonard still on the Academic track: At the French Academy in Rome, where he was studying at the expense of the French crown as the winner of the Prix de Rome. Intimidated by the grandness of that city’s Renaissance art, he gravitated to working from the landscape, producing many enchanting red-chalk drawings of dense gardens and classical ruins overgrown by foliage. He also made the acquaintance of a French collector and amateur printmaker, Jean-Claude Richard, who became a critical early supporter and traveling companion.

Back in Paris after the conclusion of his studies, Fragonard remained on course to become a state-sponsored history painter. A big mythological scene, “Coresus and Callirhoe,” was well received and allowed him to start the process of becoming a full Academician. (The painting is at the Louvre, but the Morgan Library has lent a related sketch to the Met exhibition.) A second commission followed, but he declined to complete it and his membership was revoked.

Perhaps he had learned, from his travels with Richard, that he had other options. He befriended the financier Pierre Jacques Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt (known as Bergeret) and they embarked on a year of luxury travel around Europe.

This reliance on private patronage could be risky; Fragonard later found himself embroiled in a lawsuit with Bergeret over the ownership of the drawings he made during their trip. (The Met says that “sources differ as to the outcome.”) But the strategy gave him freedom: from financial pressure, from Academy politics and, especially, from the strictures of sufficiently important subject matter, meaning historical or mythological scenes.

His preference for mood-setting over storytelling is evident through much of the show. In a work made shortly after his first Italian trip, “The Inspiration of the Artist,” a beleaguered draftsman is overwhelmed by a swirling thought bubble of figures from history and myth. And Fragonard kept circling back to an eternal Italy of the mind, repeatedly drawing villas and gardens from memory and imagination.

Fragonard also illustrated popular literature, including the “Tales” of Jean de La Fontaine and the epic poem “Orlando Furioso.” These were rather salacious texts for the day, and Fragonard played up their swoony romance with fluttering drapery, flowing hair and roiling oceans.

“Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant” shows how the artist benefited from the late-18th-century cult of drawing. The medium gave him the freedom to turn a virtuoso act into an extended career, to create works that were inchoate but enchantingly expressive — art about the making of art, in other words.

I recommend coming to this show with an open mind and a bit of advice from the 19th-century art critics the Goncourt brothers, who knew how best to appreciate Fragonard: “Follow him in the first flutter of an idea, when he flings upon the paper the elements of a composition, when he is searching and groping amid the mist which precedes the light.”