Fragonard at the Norton Simon Museum
Celebrated as one of the 18th century’s most imaginative artists, Jean-Honoré Fragonard by name alone conjures up images of love and play, underscored with gently erotic themes. His work, however, was not superficial, and his interests extended from scenes of family and country life to Dutch-inspired landscapes, fantasy portraits and book illustration. Norton Simon took an early interest in the artist’s work and two important oil paintings by this Rococo master were acquired in the 1960s. Happy Lovers, 1760-65, is one of the gems of the 18th-century collection. Lighthearted and titillating, it presents a pastoral subject of amorous dalliance between a youthful couple. In subject and presentation—note the verdant outdoor setting, spirited brushwork and exuberant color—this painting was meant to engender happiness in the viewer. The charming country girl teases her barefoot companion, who rests against her lap. She holds a birdcage aloft while he embraces the dove that has escaped its confines, an allusion to carnal love that would have been easily recognized by Fragonard’s patrons. His tender, sentimental images of love appealed to an aristocratic society during a moment of great change in the decades before the Revolution.
Both Happy Lovers and Music, 1760–65, were conceived for the private interior. The broadly handled paint and low viewpoint of Music suggests that it was intended as an overdoor, that is a painting placed high in a room’s decorative scheme. Music is personified as a young, beautiful woman seated on a billowing cloud and holding a lyre and brass instrument. A book of music is nearby. The winged putto near her is a génie, and in this scenario, he underscores the power of the spirit and imagination in the arts. This goddess was very likely part of an ensemble which included depictions of her eight sisters, the Muses, who ruled over the arts and sciences and offered inspiration to its practitioners.
A surprising and significant collection of black chalk drawings by this artist can also be found in the Museum collections. They represent an important moment in the education and practice of the young artist; thanks to his having earned the prestigious Prix de Rome, Fragonard was able to study art in the Eternal City at the expense of the Crown.
In Rome, his precocious skills attracted the attention of French collectors and amateurs including Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non (1727–1791) whom he met in 1760. Fragonard accepted an invitation to tour Italy’s major cities with Saint Non as his host and companion. In exchange, the artist was tasked with creating copies of the masterpieces of Baroque and contemporary art they saw on their five-month voyage. The collaboration allowed Fragonard to continue his education by studying great works of art throughout Italy and to engage in a Grand Tour experience of his own. The largest single group of drawings recording this Italian journey—139—is in The Norton Simon Foundation collection. They range from close copies to loose “impressions.” In each sketch, Fragonard’s rapid execution indicates his keen observation and evokes the moment of his initial recording of the work under circumstances that can only be imagined.
The hundreds of black chalk drawings that Fragonard produced for his patron served as source material for Saint-Non’s aquatints, which were published and sold in suites, and for his famous illustrated travel book Voyage pittoresque; ou, Description des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile (Picturesque voyage; or, Description of the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily), 1781–86. The drawings then are evidence of the important collaboration between artist and patron and of their service to the travel literature of the 18th century. They are not only documents of a Grand Tour through Italy but also works of art in their own right, reminders of Fragonard’s inventiveness, expressiveness and technical virtuosity.