Jean-Honore Fragonard
Biography of 18th Century French Rococo Painter.

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A Young Girl Reading (c.1776)
National Gallery of Art,
Washington DC.
A masterpiece of 18th century
French painting by one of the
greatest Rococo artists.

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Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806)

The French Rococo painter and printmaker Jean-Honoré Fragonard developed from a pupil of Francois Boucher (1703-70) into the most brilliant, prolific and versatile artists in 18th-century France. He was influenced in particular by the painting of Tiepolo (1696-1770) and Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1618-1682). A master of fine art painting, chalk drawing and printmaking, he created a succession of outstanding masterpieces on subjects as varied as religion, mythology, genre-scenes and landscape. Unusually, after a promising start as a history painter, he veered away from the academic art of the French Royal Academy, preferring to concentrate on lesser genres which suited his spontaneous temperament. When the French Revolution (1789-93) rendered his light-hearted style obsolete, he virtually ceased painting, took up an administrative post at the Louvre in Paris, and ended his life in obscurity. His works include The Swing (1767) and The Fountain of Love (1780) both in the Wallace Collection; The Bolt (1778, Louvre, Paris); A Young Girl Reading (1776, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); and The Stolen Kiss (1787, Hermitage, St Petersburg).

The Swing (Fragonard) (1767)
Wallace Collection, London.
In this work, the dramatic lighting
and high degree of finish shows
that Fragonard is already trying
to adjust to the coming
neoclassical style.

The Bolt (Le Verrou) (1778)
Louvre, Paris. In this work, the
dramatic lighting and high degree
of finish shows that Fragonard is
already adjusting to the coming
neoclassical style.

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For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

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of the greatest artists in Europe
from the Renaissance to 1800,
see: Old Masters: Top 100.

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Fragonard was born in Grasse - now one of the centres of the French perfume industry - and perhaps this, together with the gaiety and frivolity of his art, accounts for his being called the "fragrant essence" of the 18th-century. At the age of six, his family moved to Paris where, on the recommendation of Francois Boucher, he studied in the studio of Jean Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). Owing to temperamental differences he stayed less than 12 months, although Chardin must have succeeded in imparting a degree of disciplined draughtsmanship as the young artist immediately entered Boucher's atelier and rapidly became his top pupil. He assisted his overworked chief on several important commissions, including large tapestry art designs, and made a number of copies after paintings by Boucher, such as Hercules and Omphale, and by Rembrandt, like Girl With Broom. He was also influenced by the 17th century Italian Baroque artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64).

Winner of Prix de Rome

In 1752, Fragonard won the Prix de Rome (a scholarship enabling winning students from the Parisian Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture to spend 3-5 years of study in Rome) with his history painting Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols (1752), even though he was not a student at the Academy: Boucher's comment was "It does not matter, you are my pupil.

In 1753, he began three years of training at the Ecole Royale des Eleves Proteges, where his works included Psyche Showing her Sisters Cupid's Presents (1754, National Gallery, London) and Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet (1755, Grasse Cathedral). Other works from this period, all of which reveal the strong influence of his mentor, include the mythological paintings Jupiter and Callisto, and Cephalus and Procris (both 1755, Fine Arts Museum, Angers), as well as four decorative scenes from rural life: Shepherdess, Harvester, Gardener, and Woman Gathering Grapes (all 1754-5, Detroit Institute of Arts).

In 1756, Fragonard took up his 5-year scholarship in Rome, where he ignored the approved masters of the High Renaissance, like Raphael and Titian, preferring the freer and more exotic tradition exemplified by the great fresco Rococo artist Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). He also executed a series of summer drawings of the gardens surrounding the Villa d'Este, Tivoli, echoes of which informed many of his later works. See also the oil painting Gardens of the Villa d'Este (1762-3, Wallace Collection, London).

After his return to Paris in 1761, he worked mostly for collectors until accepted into the French Academy on the basis of his mythological work - painted in the Grand Manner - entitled Coresus and Callirhoe (1765, Louvre). Acclaimed by Denis Diderot (1713-84), the eminent philosopher, writer and art critic, the picture was lavishly praised, bought by the Crown, and caused many to see Fragonard as the saviour of French history painting - then still the supreme genre in the academic Hierarchy of the Genres.

Abandons History Painting

Now celebrated, Fragonard - by pursuing the traditional course of the history painter - could easily have become official artist to the King of France ("Premier Peintre du Roi"). Instead he soon abandoned this idiom in favour of the erotic paintings for which he is best known. Moreover, he rarely exhibited at the Salon, favouring instead the unofficial forum of the Salon de la Correspondance. Although his fellow artists charged him with sacrificing his artistic integrity for the lucrative patronage of collectors, his fine colouring, spontaneous brushwork and witty characterization ensured that even his most intimate pictures have an irrestistible verve and gaiety: examples include La Chemise enlevée (The Shirt Removed) the Serment d'amour (Love Vow), and La Culbute (The Tumble), as well as his famous composition The Swing (1767, Wallace Collection, London), a work commissioned by Baron de Saint-Julien featuring his mistress on a swing being pushed by a bishop. In addition, he completed a series of landscapes, inspired by northern European masters such as Jacob van Ruysdael (1630-81).


From 1768 to 1772, Fragonard painted a series of portrait pictures in an entirely new genre, known as "figure de fantaisie". Comprising a bravura display of technical brilliance, these paintings - sometimes completed from life in 60 minutes or less - featured subjects attired in Spanish costume, captured in varying moods, and are rendered with such virtuosity that they represent more fantasy than portrait. Examples include: Denis Diderot (1769, Louvre, Paris), Abbe Richard de Saint-Non (1769, Louvre, Paris), Francois-Henri, Duc d'Harcourt (1770, private collection) and Anne-Francois d'Harcourt, Duc de Beuvron (1770, Louvre, Paris).

As well as these easel-paintings, Fragonard completed numerous decorative artworks for private collectors, including Madame de Pompadour and the financier Jacques-Onesyme Begeret de Grancourt. This spate of work culminated in his masterpiece set of four works entitled The Progress of Love (1770-73, Frick Collection, New York), commissioned by Madame du Barry, the most beautiful of all Louis XV's mistresses, for her new pavilion at Louveciennes. However within a short time, Fragonard's four paintings (The Meeting, The Pursuit, the Lover Crowned and Love Letters) were all rejected by Madame du Barry - either because of their overt illusions to her amorous nature, or because they were incompatible with the classical severity of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux's architecture. At any rate, by 1774 they were replaced with Neoclassical art designs created by Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809).

Although in no sense taken with the new Neo-classicism, Fragonard attempted to adapt his style during the late 1770s, notably by employing more polished brushwork and by including more religious and subjects in his repertoire. At the same time he produced a number of decorative landscapes in the tradition of the "fetes champetres" of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). A notable example is Fete at Saint-Cloud (c.1775-80, Banque de France, Paris). During the 1780s, his only significant works included The Fountain of Love (1785, Wallace Collection, London), a work of sentimental Neo-classicism, and a quantity of book illustration - notably for "Contes" by La Fontaine, Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, and Don Quixote by Cervantes.

The French Revolution robbed Fragonard of his aristocratic customers: many were guillotined, others exiled. In 1789 he left Paris and sought shelter with his cousin Alexandre Maubert at Grasse, although due to his previous friendship with the now influential political artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), he was given an administrative position at the Louvre Palace, and appointed a member (later President) of the Conservatoire des Arts. He continued in these positions until 1800, dying in obscurity six years later after being ousted from his Louvre apartment and deprived of his pension. Thus ended the life of one of the most original French painters of the late eighteenth century, an artist whose spontaneity and fluidity of technique recall Rubens at his best, and whose imagination, wit, and refinement all combined to create vivacious poetic compositions that exemplified the best aspects of the age.

Note: Fragonard was an important influence on the great French lithographer and poster designer Jules Cheret (1836-1932).

Fragonard's family had several other painters in its ranks, including his sister-in-law Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837), considered to be one of France's finest female artists, his son Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard (1780-1850) who specialised in historical works, and his great-granddaughter the Impressionist Berthe Morisot (1841-95).

One of the greatest rococo artists, Jean-Honore Fragonard's paintings appear in many of the best art museums throughout the world.


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