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Richard Rand, “Jean Honoré Fragonard/A Game of Hot Cockles/c. 1775/1780,” French Paintings of the Fifteenth through Eighteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed November 28, 2022).

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Jan 01, 2009 Version

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As with so many of Fragonard’s paintings, the original destination of A Game of Horse and Rider [fig. 1] and A Game of Hot Cockles remains mysterious; the paintings made their first public appearance only in the late nineteenth century.[1] They were undoubtedly intended as pendants, however, and meant to be installed in boiseries as part of a larger decorative program. The paintings are equal in size and have similar color schemes and compositions, and their subjects are perfectly complementary; each focuses on richly verdant gardens in which groups of figures have gathered to enjoy games in the outdoors. In style and theme they can be compared to the larger canvases of Blindman's Buff [fig. 2] and The Swing [fig. 3], works that include similar figures that appear in the present paintings. For example, the dashing couple — the man in blue suit, the woman in red dress, their white lapdog beside them — seated on the bench to the left of the game in Hot Cockles seem to have wandered over from The Swing, where we see them lounging at the left, about to dip a similar white dog into the fountain. Despite the differences in size, the four garden paintings in the National Gallery of Art were very likely painted about the same time, probably between 1775 and 1780.  

The similarities among the four paintings have often been noted, but whether they were intended as part of the same decorative scheme that also included another monumental garden scene, Fête at Saint-Cloud [fig. 4], is still an open question.[2] The figures in Horse and Rider and Hot Cockles are more carefully finished and richly detailed than those in the larger garden scenes, perhaps a function of their better state of preser­vation, with the impasto of the brushwork and the delicate glazes applied to the figures still mostly intact. Nevertheless, the canvases are probably fragments, as Jean-Pierre Cuzin first suggested.[3] The branches and trunks of the towering trees are somewhat arbitrarily cropped at the top edge, and technical evidence suggests that the paintings have been cut down.[4] The two paintings may originally have been much taller, perhaps equal in height to Blindman’s Buff, The Swing, and Fête at Saint-Cloud (about 216 cm). The resulting compositions, while extremely tall and narrow, would not have been unusual for decorative painting, which often was conceived to fit into established wall paneling.[5] Many garden scenes by Hubert Robert (French, 1733 - 1808), for example, combine a soaring landscape and cloud-filled skies with groups of figures occupying themselves in the lower section of the painting [fig. 5].[6]

The games of blindman’s buff and swinging have remained popular with children today, but horse and rider and hot cockles may be less familiar. Yet both were common in Fragonard’s time, and they appear with some frequency in works of art produced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[7] Fragonard’s paintings marvelously evoke the spirit of both activities. In Horse and Rider (in French the game is called “le cheval fondu,” or melted horse), the players have divided into two teams, one acting as a multilegged “horse,” bracing itself against a tree; the second team consists of “riders” who run and leap, one by one, onto the back of the “horse.” Once they are all aboard, the horse team tries to shake them off. In Fragonard’s painting two of the riders already seem to be losing their grip as they anticipate the charge of a teammate. Hot cockles (“la main chaude” or “frappe main”), by contrast, is a less physical game in which sleight of hand and close attention are rewarded. One player, the “penitent,” hides his face in the lap of a second (called the “confessor,” a referee who monitors the game) and places his hand flat behind his back. In turn, the other players slap the penitent on the hand, and he tries to identify who hit him. The player who lets himself be discovered becomes the penitent. This moment apparently is captured in the painting, as we see the penitent gesturing toward the person he has identified (either the standing woman in the light blue dress or the recoiling young man behind her). Fragonard records with his usual prescience the expressions, gestures, and body language that convey a sense of their amusement and absorption in the game.

The genesis of Fragonard’s paintings is as mysterious as their original purpose. Although the landscapes and figures in Horse and Rider and Hot Cockles are among the artist’s most accomplished inventions, no preparatory studies for them exist.[8] As with much of his oeuvre, it is as if Fragonard created them directly on the canvas, with little of the preparation and planning that one usually expects in such elaborate productions. Yet he did not invent these scenes out of whole cloth, for there was an established tradition for representing games in landscape settings; Fragonard undoubtedly had access to this tradition, and the National Gallery’s paintings are clearly indebted to it. For example, Fragonard certainly was aware of the series of prints representing games published by Jacques Stella (French, 1596 - 1657) and Gabriel Perelle (French, 1603 - 1677) in the seventeenth century [fig. 6].[9] But, as with the larger canvases showing Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, the present paintings owe a debt to Jean-Baptiste Oudry (French, 1686 - 1755), whose designs for a tapestry cycle on the theme of Amusements champêtres include representations of Horse and Rider and Hot Cockles that are closely related to Fragonard’s compositions [fig. 7].[10] Despite their extraordinary inventiveness and incomparable technical mastery, these paintings continue a convention of decorative pastoral art that has its roots in the fête galante of the earlier eighteenth century.

As with Fragonard’s larger garden paintings, the possible meanings of these games have been a matter of debate among scholars. We may wonder whether Fragonard’s intention was to invest them with allegorical or emblematic meaning or whether he used them merely to enliven a pair of decorative landscapes. As Colin Eisler pointed out, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (?1525 / 1530 – 1569) included boys playing horse and rider in his painting Children’s Games, which has been interpreted as an evocation of the folly of youth.[11] In Fragonard’s painting the rowdy play of the boys is juxtaposed with the older couple at the left, who, it is perhaps implied, enjoy a more adult game of flirtation. This activity is expanded upon in Hot Cockles, in which the amusement — like the related one of blindman’s buff — is an obvious allegory of courtship.[12] This interpretation is emphasized by the sculptures included in the scene: at the right edge, surmounting a pedestal with a carved relief of dancing figures, is Étienne Maurice Falconet’s (1716 – 1791) Menacing Cupid, who holds a finger to his lips. This work, exhibited at the Salon of 1757, had already been used by Fragonard in his early version of The Swing (London, Wallace Collection); here it plays a similar role of commenting on the proceedings, for the success of the game of hot cockles depends on the participants remaining discreet. It is balanced on the left by a second sculpture, which Eisler understood to represent an altar to love, similar to the one depicted in Jean Baptiste Greuze’s painting The Offering to Love of about 1767.[13]

In conceiving A Game of Horse and Rider and A Game of Hot Cockles, Fragonard clearly meant for the viewer to measure one painting against the other, and he invested the landscape settings with a greater significance than is apparent in Oudry’s tapestry designs. Each picture depicts a corner of a vast parkland, with figures playing in the foreground and a view deep into the center distance. With typical sophistication and wit, Fragonard placed the two amusements in settings that comment on and amplify the activities. As with Blindman’s Buff, The Swing, and Fête at Saint-Cloud, Fragonard contrasts two different styles of garden design popular in the eighteenth century — the picturesque and the formal — and populates them with suitable figures enjoying activities proper for their nature.[14] In Hot Cockles the game is played by elegantly dressed young adults in a formal garden, with clipped hedges, smooth parterres, potted trees, and discreetly placed sculptures. In Horse and Rider, by contrast, the garden is natural, with no signs of human manipulation; its principal motif is a gnarled and twisted tree that acts to support the rowdy horseplay of the youths. Their roughhousing is appropriate to the rugged ground on which they play, so different from the well-maintained parterre on which the demure game of Hot Cockles is enjoyed. Fragonard created internal points of contrast as well. The craggy contour of the tree at the right in Horse and Rider is distinguished from the graceful stand of birches at the left, just as the carousing youths are opposed to the well-dressed couple reclining nonchalantly on the ground. In each painting there are half-glimpsed views into the further reaches of the garden, suggestive of hidden attractions and intriguing corners yet to explore. Garden paths lead off in several directions in each painting. Hot Cockles is dominated by a principal central path, on which two women have stopped to admire an unseen view off to the right. In Horse and Rider a large river or basin occupies the middle ground, and in the distance a gondola, unloading a group of promenaders, can just be discerned. The original extreme verticality of these two paintings, with their towering trees and monumental skies, would have visually complemented the emphatically horizontal formats of Fête at Saint-Cloud and, when taken together, Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, works that articulate the vast expanse of the landscape rather than the infinite heights of the sky.


This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 188–194.

Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.

Richard Rand

January 1, 2009


Possibly William Williams Hope [1802-1855], Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire, and Paris; possibly by gift to Madame Jenny Colon [1808-1842], Paris.[1] Emile [1800-1875] and Isaac [1806-1880] Péreire, Paris, by 1864; (Péreire sale, at their residence by Pillet and Petit, Paris, 6-9 March 1872, no. 60); Frédéric-Alexis-Louis Pillet-Will, comte Pillet [1837-1911], Paris, until at least 1910.[2] (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London), by 1932;[3] Calouste Gulbenkian [1869-1955]; (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London);[4] sold 1942 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[5] gift 1946 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Exposition de tableaux, statues et objects d'art au profit de l'oeuvre des Orphelins d'Alsace-Lorraine, Salle des États au Louvre, Paris, 1885, no. 193.
Ausstellung von Werken französischer Kunst des XVIII. Jahrhunderts, Königliche Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1910, no. 320 (no. 45 in French ed.).
Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1932, no. 211.
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 771.
Fragonard, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987-1988, no. 165.
Das Capriccio als Kunstprinzip. Zur Vorgeschichte der Moderne von Arcimboldo und Callot bis Tiepolo und Goya: Malerei - Zeichnung - Graphik, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; Kunsthaus Zürich; Palais Harrach, Vienna, 1996-1997, no. 91, repro.
De Watteau à Fragonard. Les fête galantes, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, 2014, no. 57, repro.
Fragonard amoreux: galant et libertin, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 2015-2016.
Technical Summary

Both A Game of Hot Cockles and A Game of Horse and Rider were executed on plain-weave, medium-weight fabric, but the fabric of A Game of Hot Cockles is a slightly finer weight than that of A Game of Horse and Rider. Both paintings have been lined, and the tacking margins have been removed. Both have cusping only along their right and bottom edges, which may be an indication that they have been cut down on the top and left side. A Game of Horse and Rider has a series of small holes along the bottom edge. These may be old tack holes, but they are not related to the original stretching of the canvas because they are not in alignment with the cusping.

The lowest ground layer is red in both paintings, and a local white imprimatura layer may be present over the red ground. The lowest ground layer in both paintings appears to have a faint texture, possibly caused by agglomerations of large pigment particles or sand. The paint has been applied similarly in both paintings, in thin, overlying layers of opaque and glazed paints. The artist used ­different-sized brushes for different paint layers. The multiple layers that make up the paint film were allowed to dry between working sessions, and thinly painted forms and details can be seen through overlying glazes. The figures were created with color patches of an opaque, paste paint applied in fluid, rapid brushstrokes. The color patches are delineated occasionally with contour lines of a brown, black, or red glazed paint. Much of the paint texture is smooth, but there is brush texture in the skies and in the foregrounds. Infrared reflectography at 1.5 – 1.8 microns revealed a tree trunk extending through and below the brightly lit island in the left middle ground of A Game of Horse and Rider, indicating that the island may not have been part of the original design.

The paintings are in good condition. They are structurally secure, but they have been somewhat flattened by past linings. According to conservation records, Stephen Pichetto relined both paintings in 1943. He also removed a discolored varnish and restored the paintings at that time. There is evidence of moderate abrasion of the paint layers and some loss of glazes in the foliage in the foreground of A Game of Hot Cockles. A Game of Horse and Rider has no significant paint losses; there are only two small areas of damage in A Game of Hot Cockles. One area, which measures about 4 cm, is located in the upper left arm of the woman in blue to the right of center, and the other, a 2.5-cm area, is located in the top of the blue, middle-ground trees on the right. Between 2006 and 2007, both paintings were treated to remove the discolored varnish and inpaint applied in 1943.

Bürger, W. "Galerie de MM. Pereire." Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. I, 16 (April 1864): 201.
Portalis, Roger. "Les peintures décoratives de Fragonard et les panneaux de Grasse." Gazette des Beaux Arts ser. 2, 32 (1885): 483.
Portalis, Roger. Honoré Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre. 2 vols. Paris, 1889: 282.
Nolhac, Pierre de. J.-H. Fragonard. Paris, 1906: 159.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 124, color repro.
"Kress Makes Important Donation of French Painting to the Nation." Art Digest 18, no. 19 (1 August 1944): 5.
"One of the Greatest Donations of XVIIIth Century French Painting Ever Received by a Museum - The Kress Collection." The Illustrated London News 115, no. 2992 (26 August 1944): 249
"The Almanac: French Paintings Given to the National Gallery." The Magazine Antiques 46, no. 5 (November 1944): 288.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 168, repro.
Wildenstein and Company. French XVIII Century Paintings. New York, 1948: 4.
Einstein, Lewis. "Looking at French Eighteenth Century Pictures in Washington." Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 6th ser., 47, no. 1048-1049 (May-June 1956): 238-239, repro. 246.
Réau, Louis. Fragonard: sa vie et son oeuvre. Brussels, 1956: 158.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 369, repro.
Wildenstein, Georges. The Paintings of Fragonard. New York, 1960: no. 444
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 51.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 43, repro.
Watson, Francis. "Fragonard." Art News Annual 37 (1971):86
Mandel, Gabriele. L'Opera completa di Fragonard. Milan, 1972: no. 469, repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 130, repro.
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 331-332, fig. 294.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 341, no. 459, color repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 157, repro.
Cuzin, Jean-Pierre. "Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Vie et oeuvre." Fribourg, 1987. English edition New York, 1988: 203, 206, fig 253, 325-326, no. 341, repro.
Rosenberg, Pierre. Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard. Paris, 1989: 106, no. 315, repro.
Sheriff, Mary D. Fragonard. Art and Eroticism. Chicago and London, 1990: 85-89, 117, 118, repro.
Timken Museum of Art. Timken Museum of Art: European works of art, American paintings, and Russian icons in the Putnam Foundation collection. San Diego, 1996: 154, repro. fig. 2.
Rosenberg, Pierre. "Fragonard, La Fête à Saint-Cloud, Louis-Pierre Marchal de Sainscy, et la Banque de France." In Place de Victoires: histoire, architecture, societé. Ed. Isabelle Dubois et. al. Paris, 2004: 254-257, repro.
Baillio, Joseph, et al. The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 78 (not in the exhibition).
Milam, Jennifer. Fragonard's Playful Paintings: Visual Games in Rococo Art. Manchester, 2006: 131, 141, 142, 143.
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: no. 39, 188-194, color repro.
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