Rococo Nears Its Afterlife

John Haber
in New York City

Domenico Tiepolo and Jean Honoré Fragonard

An artist named Tiepolo thinks big. When Giambattista Tiepolo painted a miracle, he not only covered walls and ceilings but reached for the infinite depth of the heavens. And when his eldest son retired to the outskirts of Venice at age 58, he did not exactly take it easy.

Domenico Tiepolo painted the decorations for his stately home, kept up official duties, and still found time for three immense series of drawings. The New Testament cycle alone has over three hundred sheets, each eighteen inches in height and fifteen inches wide. They took much of the late 1780s, and more may turn up yet. Domenico Tiepolo's Jesus at Gethsemane: The Second Prayer (loan to Indiana University Art Museum, c. 1789)

As it happens, the Morgan Library displays drawings by a near contemporary, Jean Honoré Fragonard. Where Tiepolo worked in series, Fragonard worked toward project after project. Where the Italian made drawings polished enough to stand on their own, the French artist drew hastily. Where Tiepolo worked alone, Fragonard traveled in good company, and the Morgan exhibits him amid other French artists of his time, plus the work of Mozart. As a postscript, the Frick reopens its Fragonard rooms, newly lit and fully restored.

Tiepolo did not pass along the New Testament drawings, as models for paintings of prints. No record exists of their making, and their subsequent history is equally elusive. Only half reside in one place, the Louvre. The sixty drawings at the Frick entail some impressive art-historical detective work. Together with Fragonard downtown, they show a period of splendor facing up to change. They also show what happened when a very public artist went off on his own.

Peter, Paul, and Punchinello

Actually, I cannot swear that Tiepolo did draw simply to please himself. He might not have known how. He had served as chief assistant in his father's workshop—or what Andy Warhol might have called a factory. He worked amid the froth of the late Baroque and Rococo, like the even more prolific Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. The drawings themselves all but demand an audience. One should not think of artists like Rembrandt or Francisco de Goya, turning inward to confront their demons. One does not look to Tiepolo's drawings for slow progress toward a late style, and one cannot clearly date individual sheets.

In fact, can only speculate as to their purpose. Adelheid Gealt of the Indiana University Art Museum and George Knox of the University of British Columbia, the curators and consulting detectives, have several guesses. Many scenes take place in Rome and involve Peter, its patron saint. Perhaps they celebrate relics of the saint, or perhaps they provide overtures from Venice to the pope, amid rivalries, revolution, and the threat of Napoleon. Perhaps an aging artist, known for pagan myths and Punchinellos, looked to the roots of his faith. Interest in the historical Jesus dates roughly to his time as well.

History, however, means something different to Tiepolo than on an AP test. It allows Matthew as tax collector to work as a bank officer in modern Venice. It goes back before the Biblical accounts to the meeting of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna. It follows the holy family on their flight into Egypt, accompanied by an entire herd of animals. It dwells on births, family scenes, horses, dogs, and miracle upon miracle. For sure, it takes Tiepolo to a reading of Mark, now considered the oldest Gospel, but also to a myriad of legends.

One could marvel at Tiepolo's attention to textual fine points, perhaps including sources still awaiting discovery. I imagine, however, an artist attending not to scholarship but to folk traditions. The Renaissance discovered physical and psychological depths in divine beings and in timeless ritual. Tiepolo instead sees creatures and events beyond human understanding passing through his world. The flagellation of Jesus turns into a mosh pit. Witnesses to his ascension may reach upward, but a drawing captures only broad gestures toward a dark cloud.

The human context underscores an artist's personal faith, but also his sense of religion as a community of believers in his time. All that attention to Peter means a diminished role for Paul—and, I suspect, for clerical authority ever after. When the Apostles announce their creed, they appear as part of a crowd, not as the elect. Tiepolo has a fondness, too, for scenes that deny the holy family access to the temple and, by extension, the establishment. In their tender moment of recognition, Joachim and Anna get sidelined, while angels tumble through the air head first, as if forcefully ejected. It looks like the stunt in a silent comedy.

Whether he looks to Italy or to eternity, Tiepolo often finds himself back in an early Punch and Judy show. One can compare his father's mythological and decorative impulse to Baroque theater, but the son knows the more intimate comic constraints of Mozart. A servant leaning out a window toward a standing saint resembles the lover in an eighteenth-century opera. The distinction corresponds to the generation gap in France, between François Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard. It signals a growing Enlightenment trend toward art as a kind of morality play, as described by historians like Michael Fried. At his most moving, Tiepolo still loves the stage.

A cast of thousands

Tiepolo even constructs a drawing like a director approaching opening night. He plans the central actors, designs the sets, decorates the scenery, and places the extras. He begins with black chalk, almost entirely effaced in the end by brown ink and wash. Probably several sources of pigment contribute to its overall golden tone and darker touches.

Buildings, trees, or hills fill the composition to its height, with the figures generally in the bottom half. They rarely, however, touch the very bottom, for they rest on a floor's sharply tilted perspective or the rocky landscape. Their inability to rise or to sink places Tiepolo between his father's flights of extravagance and the next generation's Neoclassical reserve. It also matches the composition of many a lightweight Fragonard landscape—or the audience perception of a stage. The crowd itself may function as audience, with Jesus off to the right rather than in the center for his Sermon on the Mount.

The white of the paper provides the highlights, so vivid that I mistook them at first for a final, loosely painted overlay. Yet it makes sense that white offers the sole trace of the work's origin, for it defines the key figures in almost every scene. Jesus at night outshines the torches, the very signs of his holiness.

With his brown, Tiepolo adds free, spiky strokes over even ruled perspective lines. A double stroke might separate bricks. A brush might give the white flesh its pectoral muscles. Hardly a line runs long enough to encompass the edge of an entire cloak or the jagged outline of a beard. Conflicting diagonals lift up and destabilize the often pyramidal compositions. One finds them in the three crosses at Calvary—or the stonework of paving and buildings.

Finally, darker actors add emotional accents to the scene. A caped figure at right has his back to the viewer when a lame man walks up stairs. The mystery man could serve as respectful witness to a miraculous cure, the banished demon, or a figure of fashion, and who can say for sure? I think of Tiepolo's light as standing for actors and gestures, his dark for mass and private feeling—and how nice to discover so much private feeling in the late Rococo.

I did not expect much from a contemporary of Fragonard or from the workshop of the older, more famous Tiepolo. I have a hard enough time understanding their flights of fancy. I felt a personal haven upstairs, where the Frick brings Cimabue to America. Still, the drawings mark a moment in art's century-long transition—a descent back to reality after the Rococo and an ascent to Romanticism's wilder imagination. If one seeks a cast of thousands, the totality of late Tiepolo drawings may get there yet.

Onward and upward

In an old joke, an abstract painting hangs upside down, and no one can tell the difference. It has happened, too, at least in reproduction. One might even call it a test—of the hush proper to a museum or the formal clarity of modern art. But could that test make Jean Honoré Fragonard, who died two hundred years ago, modern? Jean Honore Fragonard's Interior of a Park (Morgan Library/Thaw Collection, c. 1765)

Not that the Morgan Library has hung any of its French drawings incorrectly. Nor does Fragonard have the least concern for symmetry, although one tightly composed gouache turns the gardens at Villa d'Este into a privileged interior. Still, when his figures reach for each other and the sky, they seem to disdain the bottom of the sheet, if not gravity itself. In a late series, based on Orlando Furioso, each person rests on solid ground, but the ground may fall almost anywhere. In a frontispiece decoration, people spew out, as if powering the volcanic eruption still further above. A lovely young woman lies at ease, but her torso rises vertically as if of its own accord, and her beautifully defined extended legs appear to float.

Fragonard's fortunes depended on pushing the Rococo literally to its end, as in period rooms that an artist, Susan Hamburger, has parodied even today. Flesh becomes an extension of hair and fabric. The studied artifice in Jean-Étienne Liotard gives way to a feverish concentration on one color of chalk. Where Jean-Siméon Chardin probes the passing moment, here moments readily overlap. The moral fables of Jean-Baptiste Greuze remain, although one can hardly locate the plot. Boucher may confound observation with artistic or literary tradition, but here the work declares its independence from both. The curators admit to guessing when they assign episodes from Orlando Furioso.

If that sounds a bit modern after all, could Fragonard attest to the ferment that left him behind? He fell out of fashion with Neoclassicism, but he sent his son to study with Jacques-Louis David, and David in turn looked after Fragonard's insecure career. That Italian Renaissance epic poem goes on long enough to encompass madness, love, and war, and one could almost imagine those drawings from the 1780s as a prophecy of the French Revolution. A decaying estate from 1774, influenced by Piranesi, could serve as a parable of a dying aristocracy. One could even see a dignified Italian peasant woman from the same year as a political statement.

It makes sense, then, that the forty drawings share a room with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for the composer's two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary. He, too, has stood for everything from supernatural grace to a foul-mouthed, Romantic genius, and his operas have enough problems with the aristocracy of their own. Another kind of revolutionary, Bob Dylan, has additional manuscripts upstairs. As part of the Morgan's post-renovation enhancements, both come with nifty computer enhancements, including listening consoles.

Of the three, however, Fragonard belongs to a quainter past, and he cannot even blame an early death. "Fragonard and the French Tradition" places his drawings among those of other artists, arranged chronologically, from about 1750 to 1790. A course from Boucher to David underscores both influences and their weightier aspirations. Fragonard and Hubert Robert work together in Italy, exploring wooded landscapes and the technique of red chalk. Some other correspondences frankly elude me, and a dispersal of artists can make the star of the show that much more minor. Besides, I should hate to draft him entirely for the Revolution, lest he float away and his gun go off by mistake.

Period pieces

If you have ever read In Praise of Folly, or attempted to, you probably thought you should have had a lot more fun. Erasmus crystallized a new Renaissance humanism. He made fun of things. Yet he retained his devotion at once to Christianity and to a balanced, classical style. Even as he praised folly over asceticism, he did so in the name of disdaining superstition and avoiding extremes. You probably felt that you deserved a little folly of your own.

I feel the same way when Fragonard charts the course of love. I have often fled his work at the Frick as fast as I could, in search of quavering signs of love in Jan Vermeer down the hall. However, I have a better sense now of Fragonard's own admiration for folly. This summer the main panels from his period rooms hung for a while on more ordinary walls, where I could study them as art rather than as the climax of a high-ceiling Rococo Vegas or Disneyland. Now they are back in place, in a restored room with modern lighting, and they deserve another look, even with a jaundiced eye. One can better understand his evolution, as an artist and as the last half-crazed efflorescence of an already dying age.

Until I saw them apart from their furnishings, I never realized that the paintings date from two distinct periods in his life, and one actually follows the French Revolution. The early canvases still show the polish of Boucher or Charles Coypel, right down to the blue-green palette that Boucher admired in the late Dutch Baroque. After Jean Antoine Watteau, Watteau's soldiers, and the birth of the Rococo, Boucher elevated genre painting to a pageant suitable for the middle class and aristocracy alike. His own period room and hallway still drive me crazy, with his smiling baby faces and the intellectual veneer of a schema devoted to the seasons, art, and science. Fragonard almost redeems the style by pushing the silliness past the breaking point. The brushwork multiplies, the woods deepen, and a woman with wildly outstretched arms and extended neck could be functioning as the world's most exotic corkscrew.

The final canvases conclude the saga of lovers in pursuit, but they also break with it. Completed in 1791, they show love's triumphs, but the human beings hardly appear and no longer meet. In smaller panels filling up the period walls, even cherubs have become isolated from Boucher's bubbling crowd. The brushwork has loosened up further, with thinner oils, and the light radiates outward. One can no longer separate so easily the edges of individual leaves. Yet autumn colors have taken over completely, and the refusal of polish comes with a sense of loss.

In those French drawings at the Morgan Library a year before, Fragonard's extravagance seemed almost a prophecy of revolution—and not just in its hints of Romanticism. The increasingly isolated figures comport with foliage that has overgrown the architecture. The brighter light and the allegorical triumph seem more otherworldly. Perhaps Fragonard is just nutty enough to embrace wealth, love, and youth even in old age and amid abandoned estates. Perhaps he is just determined to outlast the revolution.

He did survive, sending a child to study Neoclassicism. He is above (or below) politics, and I read too much into his work to dwell on melancholy or doom. I shall start fleeing the period rooms again any day now. Still, up close the sketchy brown leaves do look more modern. And a view of work almost twenty years apart, plus the period furnishings, helps describe at least three stages in a very strange century. As with Erasmus, part of the challenge is that the whole idea of love and folly has changed. Afterward, one had best go looking for both on one's own.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament" ran at The Frick Collection and "Fragonard and the French Tradition" at The Morgan Library, both through January 7, 2007. The Fragonard room opened again at the Frick in November 2007. A related review catches up with Fragonard drawings nearly ten years later.


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