"Fragonard in Love" at Musée du Luxembourg

Laurent Brero
Sep 11, 2015 11:47AM

This exhibition is produced by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais.  

According to the Goncourt brothers, the eighteenth century was an era of seduction, love and intrigue, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) might have been its main illustrator, if not its main agent. Indeed, the inspiration of love runs through “Divine Frago”’s protean and generous work, from his early bucolic compositions to the love allegories found in his later works. In turn gallant, libertine, daringly lustful or conversely concerned with new love ethics, his art spans half a century of artistic creativity with ardour and elegance, endlessly reinventing itself to better capture the subtle variations of emotion and love impulse.

Presenting Fragonard’s work for the first time through this love prism, this exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg focuses on the mid-18th century, a time when the spirit of Enlightenment is deeply influenced by English sensualism. The topic of how to delicately express sensuality and emotion was then at the heart of philosophical, literary and artistic concerns. Strongly imbued with these questions as he emerged from François Boucher’s studio, the young Fragonard already brings to fashionable pastoral and mythological compositions a fresh sensitivity, unquestionably marked by sensuality, yet more profound than the strict libertine strategy. At the same time, his study of Flemish masters encourages him to transition from sophisticated eroticism to rustic scenes that take on an unequivocal carnal dimension, such as The Stolen Kiss from Metropolitan Museum. Talented illustrator of La Fontaine’s least restrained Tales, Fragonard, like his colleague, miniaturist and libertine Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, displays an audacity that often matches that of many progressive writers and intellectuals of his time, such as Diderot in The Indiscreet Jewels. Indeed, forceful yet allusive “secret” works for licentious amateurs, created at the beginning of the 1760, contributed to portraying Fragonard as a libertine and painter of ladies’ salons and other intimate scenes. This impish inspiration transpires through a great variety of expressions, from the naughty Useless Resistance in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm to the sensual yet delicate Kiss (private collection). In parallel with this independence of mind – or free licence – Fragonard strove to renew with great poetry the theme of fête galante, inherited from Watteau, as the timeless Île d’amour (on loan from the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian) testifies. Later, in the 1770 and 1780s, following in the steps of the famous The Lock from the Louvre and as de Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses knelled the end of literature’s libertine inspiration, his art reached a decisive turning point as he began to explore the true feeling of love through allegories swept by a most delicate lyricism. With infinite subtlety, Fragonard dealt with the mystical dimension of profane love, at the root of what was to become “romantic love”.

Fragonard’s relentless fathoming of the theme of love is shown at the Musée du Luxembourg through an exceptional selection of more than 80 pieces, well-known or less often displayed, lent by the most prestigious collections in Europe and the United States. The display gives pride of place to painting, but also highlights Fragonard’s prodigious talent as a draughtsman, as well as his ambitious yet frustrated career as an illustrator, with drawings that he made for La Fontaine’s Tales (exceptional loan from the Musée du Petit Palais) and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The whole exhibition draws parallels between Fragonard’s works and those of some of his contemporaries with whom he established a fruitful dialogue on the representation of the feeling of love: François Boucher of course, but also Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze or even illustrators Charles Eisen and Jean-Michel Moreau le jeune, as well as writers Diderot, Rousseau, Crébillon and Claude-Joseph Dorat.


Curator: Guillaume Faroult, Head of Conservation, Paintings Department, Musée du Louvre, 18th-century French paintings Manager.
Scenography: Jean-Julien Simonot.

Laurent Brero