Sully wing – 2nd floor – Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1736-1806) – Room 48
With his price of Rome, Fragonard is ready to leave for the Eternal City. But, before taking the boat, he will bid farewell to his old master and friend Francois Boucher. The latter kisses him and, on his return, gives him his last advice. “My dear Frago,” he said, “you go to Italy to see the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, but, I tell you in confidence, as a friend, if you take them seriously, you are lost.” Boucher who had his outspokenness, would have even used a more energetic word.
Let us not hurry to cry sacrilege. Boucher was too great an artist to disregard the genius of the masters of the Renaissance. In his disrespectful form, his advice was intended only to warn Fragonard against the danger of servile imitation, be it the imitation of Raphael. He did not want Rome to smother in her pupil her brilliant artistic personality, as she had done for so many talented painters, who had returned from there atrophied and without temperament.
Fragonard followed Boucher’s instructions to the letter; the academic education of the Royal School of Rome remained with him without influence. The ancients did not manage to mislead him either: in the face of the marvels of Michelangelo and Raphael, he felt himself moved, admiringly penetrated, but he was too much of his country and his time to undergo any influence; he escaped the temptation to see through the eyes of others and did not compromise his personality in bad reflections of Italian art. His only master was nature, that incomparable nature of the surroundings of Rome; he went through and studied the most beautiful sites in Italy. The ancient ruins, the running waters, the majestic trees left Fragonard’s imagination so vividly felt that it will often be reflected in his paintings, developing in him an emotional feeling of nature and an in-depth knowledge of the light of which he will bathe his scenes later; it was from his stay in Italy that he brought back the love of those large gardens that so often served him as a backdrop.
When he returned to France, he was able to reappear without shame before Boucher, who found him as he had left, but with a more complete genius, matured by study. He was ready to receive from the hands of his aged master the scepter of French painting; the glorious era was about to open for him.
One can make two parts of the work of Fragonard: the one that precedes his marriage and the one that is posterior to him. In the first category are placed the canvases with light subjects; in the second we find more frequently scenes of intimacy in the style of the little Dutch masters.
TIt is in this second way that belongs the Music Lesson, which we give here. This beautiful canvas has remained in the sketch state; but under the slight smear of the painting appears even better the exquisite delicacy of Fragonard’s art and his ability to paint the interior scenes.
Sitting in an armchair, a charming young woman, with golden blond hair, reads a piece of music on the desk at the harpsichord. She is in the purest costume of the time, with her wide open bodice and satin skirt whose folds boil over the arms of her chair. Beside her, standing, there is a young man, perhaps his teacher, more surely his lover, wearing a somewhat archaic garment, quite similar to that of the darlings of Henry III. A toquet covers his head and his neck is trapped in a ruffed strawberry. His office seems to be to supervise the correct execution of the piece, but all his attention seems to go preferably to the charms of his pupil, which seems to us very blushing despite the application it affects. In a chair next to the harpsichord, a viol is placed, and next to it appears the round head of a cat that the music has no doubt awakened from his sleep.
This small intimate scene is infinitely graceful: the interest of the canvas is focused on the two characters who occupy the entire width. No decor, no accessories distract attention; not a detail of furnishing or architecture which solicits the glance; it is a detail menu of daily existence, taken on the spot.
“No one was better endowed than Fragonard; all the fairies seem to have attended his birth. Less mythological than Boucher, he expressed the taste, the whim and the caprice of his century with an incredible wit and spirit.
“His paintings are charming, his sketches are worth more than his paintings, and his drawings as his sketches. He needs almost nothing to give his idea; a smear of bitumen, a local rosy or bluish hue, some hatching, a light eve and that’s a whole world of figurines that live, smile, seek, kiss, run and flit, through smoke, clouds and groves. “(Théophile Gautier.)
Height: 1.10 – Width: 1.20 – Figures to half-body natural size.