National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: 18th-Century France — Boucher and Fragonard

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The Enlightenment

During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers transformed western Europe into a modern society. Critical of orthodoxy, these philosophes radically changed the way men thought about religion, economics, political philosophy, and education. Their method was rational and secular, founded on a belief that the exercise of reason alone could reveal ultimate truths and move man to improve his condition.

Montesquieu analyzed the forms of government to discover the "spirit" behind them. In despotism he found fear; in the republic, virtue. The Enlightenment invested man with "inalienable rights." It led eventually to revolution in the American colonies and France, and in the process created a climate for art that served a "higher" purpose. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who contrasted the innate virtue of man in his natural state with the artifice of civilization, noted that the prevailing rococo style "contributed little to . . . public virtue."

The Salon

Beginning in 1737, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture presented a public exhibition about every two years of up to 450 paintings and sculpture in the Salon Carré, a great square hall in the Louvre palace. From this location, the expositions themselves came to be called Salons.

In the active intellectual climate of the eighteenth century, the Salons presented yet another arena for inquiry. Newspapers described the works exhibited, and the Academy sold programs. Unofficial guides were also written. Although often anonymous and circulated privately, these guides established art criticism as a subject of intelligent discourse. The most perceptive and influential of the new critics was the encyclopedist Denis Diderot. His preference for art that was morally uplifting fueled growing sentiment against the sensuous and decorative rococo style.

Boucher and Fragonard

The criticism of Diderot and others stimulated artists to a new seriousness but did not change the pastel complexion of rococo overnight, as demonstrated by the works of Boucher and Fragonard in the Gallery, all done after 1750.

Boucher was influenced by the subjects and delicate manner of Watteau's fêtes galantes, which he had copied for published engravings. He soon came to the attention of the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and rose to prominence under her patronage. In addition to a productive career as a painter, he was also the principal designer for Sèvres porcelain and the Beauvais tapestry works, both projects dear to Madame de Pompadour. Boucher imparted the intimacy of the boudoir to all of his subjects, whether domestic scenes, pastoral idylls, or mythological themes.

Fragonard began to study painting first with Chardin, then with Boucher, adopting the latter's subjects but painting with a freer technique. He won both admiration for his fluid brushwork and criticism for the dashed, unfinished look of his canvases. During study in Italy he sketched Renaissance gardens, and these continued to haunt his expansive outdoor scenes peopled with tiny figures.

Fragonard's popularity made him wealthy, but he outlived his own era. Even before the revolution, sober neoclassical styles were replacing the giddiness of rococo. Fragonard was forced to flee France as the world he portrayed and the patrons he served fell to the guillotine.

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