5.17.17 — Realism in Excess

Was Jean Honoré Fragonard a realist? He may seem the worst conceivable candidate for that honor. Last time I looked at Baroque landscape drawings at the Met, so allow me to turn back to the previous show in that very same space for a catch-up post. I drafted it back then but then let it slide way too long, with apologies.

A student of François Boucher, Fragonard pushed his teacher’s Rococo fantasies to their limits and beyond. He takes to the moral fables of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the Enlightenment, only to leave them without a moral. Jean Honore Fragonard's Interior of a Park (Morgan Library/Thaw Collection, c. 1765)On his Island of Love, one can strain to tell the human beings from cherubs, and neither feels the pull of the earth. His nearly two hundred drawings after Orlando Furioso, the epic poem, live in a dream world between an uncertain ground and a restive sky—and scholars still strain to identify the scenes at hand.

Yet even the sternest realist can admire his drawings at the Met, through January 8. He studies the fall of light on the density of acanthus leaves and later a chestnut tree, and he executes copies after Jacob van Ruysdael, the Dutch landscape artist. In his twenties, on a trip to Rome, he captures the stairs and waterfalls of parks recognizable as tourist attractions to this day. Over time, he compiles a compendium of country life, from a fisherman at his nets to a communal bread oven. In the city, he is equally attentive to a young Neapolitan woman, children at play, a deacon in profile lost in his book, and a sultan. Recording a trip down the Rhine with friends, he depicts them all as seasick and exhausted.

Still, he covers them at a fever’s pace, and little is as it seems. He cares more for contrasts of light and dark than for plant species, and his trees belong to an enchanted forest, from the Italian poetry of Torquato Tasso. He prefers the artifice of parks to city streets, and anyway he had come to Rome to study at the Académie de France. Scenes of country life mix casually with stock figures from the stage and memories of Italy. A model sat for that sultan, and Fragonard may well have fashioned the sultan’s costume out of thin air. In drawing himself in the ship’s hold, he stands at a distance impossible in a self-portrait, like the audience for a play.

So what was realism, and who is to say what is real or imagined? For Fragonard, born in 1732, life blends effortlessly into theater. At the very birth of the Rococo, Jean Antoine Watteau moved between the art of music and a war zone, in search of moments of relief from human weakness. Fragonard prefers the human comedy. A child takes to his pet dog for a riding lesson, lovers fail dismally to hide in a closet, and an “indiscreet bull” butts into a shepherd’s amorous pursuits. If anything, the French Revolution had him looking for a recourse further still from the hard facts of life, right up to his death in 1806. No wonder he turned to the chivalry and romance of Orlando Furioso in the 1780s.

The Met is throwing the word naturalism around all too easily these days, as in its show of a Baroque painter, Valentin de Boulogne. It also returns to Fragonard barely a decade after his drawings at the Morgan Library and restoration of his period room at the Frick. Still, “Drawing Triumphant” supplies a thorough survey of the artist from New York collections alone. It follows him through two trips to Italy and back, the second at age forty-one. The curator, Perrin Stein, also includes prints, many as learning aids. Charmingly, his student responds with a portrait of the “genius” of Benjamin Franklin, just when the Met also exhibits Franklin’s years in France on behalf of an emerging nation and the American Revolution.

Fragonard was hardly a revolutionary, although he sent his son to study with Jacques-Louis David. He was, though, a quick study and an even quicker draftsman. Red chalk and washes give his dream visions the immediacy of daily life. A magistrate takes shape from the folds in his robe and lovers from a wood’s edge under a stormy sky. Diogenes, the ancient philosopher, and a peasant seem to draw on the very same model. An artist at work in a trellised garden could be his ultimate fantasy—or a stand-in for Fragonard himself.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.