Fragonard is usually associated in the popular imagination with amusing and mildly erotic works, yet he was also an observant and sometimes sincere painter of family life. The Visit to the Nursery is one of his more ambitious and successful domestic scenes, a touching and evocative image of parental affection. In a rustic interior, a fashionable young couple gaze lovingly at their sleeping child, who is looked after by an elderly woman seated beside the cradle. Three other children have wandered into the room and look on attentively. A soft light spills through the parted drapes at left, illuminating the scene with an ethereal glow. The quasi-devotional tenor of the scene is not unlike that found in Fragonard’s The Happy Family, although the characters are more fashionably dressed. The motif of a young husband and wife admiring their infant was popularized by such artists as Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1725 - 1805), and the theme undoubtedly would have had wide appeal in the years following Jean Jacques Rousseau’s (1712 – 1778) educational treatise Émile (1762), which advocated the development of emotional bonds between parents and their children.
The subject of a well-to-do couple admiring their sleeping child must have had a certain appeal for Fragonard, for he painted a number of variants. Several versions were circulating in Paris in the 1780s and 1790s, when there was a particularly active market for Fragonard’s work. The National Gallery of Art’s painting traditionally has been associated with one that appeared in the 1780 sale of Jean François Leroy de Senneville (1715 – 1784), a fermier général and important client of Fragonard; at one point he owned Young Girl Reading. The compiler of the sale catalogue, the dealer A. J. Paillet, described it in glowing terms: “This piece, with its broad and fluent handling, brings together all the spirit and the character suitable to the subject.” According to Paillet, “the picture is composed of eight figures, in which the subject is taken from the novel of Miss Sara by M. de Saint Lambert. This interesting composition represents the moment when the two spouses come to visit their child.” This description is a plausible one for the National Gallery’s painting, although it has seven figures, not eight. When Leroy de Senneville’s painting came on the block again in 1784, the sale catalogue repeated the earlier description, with the addition that “this work . . . makes a great impact even if it is hardly finished,” a characterization difficult to reconcile with the National Gallery’s painting, which has all the appearance of a completed work.
The issue is complicated further by the fact that Leroy de Senneville owned a second version of the subject, smaller and with “a completely different composition, in which one counts four figures, the principal one a pretty young woman wearing a straw hat; her husband sitting beside her appears to admire a child in his cradle, on which his nurse leans.” The best candidate for this second version is a painting in the Rothschild Collection [fig. 1], despite there being seven figures (Paillet easily might have overlooked the three children at right): the dimensions he recorded are accurate, and the description is reasonably precise, particularly the straw hat worn by the mother and the young nurse who has taken the place of the old crone at the side of the cradle. Yet its composition cannot be described as “completely different” from the Washington version, if that is the one accepted as Leroy de Senneville’s larger picture.
The emergence of another version of the subject, from a collection in Estonia, could help to resolve the puzzle [fig. 2]. Recently published by Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the canvas is characterized by a “broad and fluent handling” — much more so than the National Gallery’s painting — and indeed could be described as “hardly finished,” particularly in the background figures, the dog at lower left, and the bedclothes in the center, where the paint film is thin, revealing the brown ground layer. Moreover, it features the requisite eight figures, and its composition is undeniably “completely different” from the smaller Rothschild version. Of all the known variants, it best fits the descriptions in the Leroy de Senneville sale catalogues. If that is the case, the early history of the Washington painting remains to be discovered.
Far from being unfinished, The Visit to the Nursery appears to have been carefully prepared and executed. Fragonard worked out the composition in a large oil sketch, a practice he employed on only rare occasions in his smaller canvases [fig. 3]. Painted more fluidly and broadly, the sketch nevertheless established the principal distribution of forms and lighting that appear in the National Gallery’s painting. In the final conceptualization, Fragonard made the composition slightly more horizontal and worked up the details — particularly of the faces — with a finer technique and more evenly applied paint surface (which the artist enlivened by mixing sand or some other grainy material into the ground layer). Only slightly smaller than the final version, it was perhaps intended to convey to the patron what the finished painting would look like. Unfortunately, the provenance of this oil sketch cannot be traced back to the eighteenth century, further frustrating an identification of Fragonard’s patron.
The specific subject of The Visit to the Nursery has been interpreted in various ways. For Roger Portalis it represented parents visiting their child at the home of a wet nurse; he suggested that Fragonard’s painting indicated that Rousseau’s condemnation of the practice of wet-nursing in Émile had not yet taken hold in French society. Georges Wildenstein felt that here, as in all his family pictures, Fragonard was responding to his own presumably happy domestic life. Mary Sheriff, whose complex and nuanced analysis of the painting focused on its ambiguous depiction of class identity and gender roles, also understood it as probably depicting an urban couple visiting their child in the rural home of a wet nurse.
Yet in 1780 the two versions owned by Leroy de Senneville (presumably figs. 1 and 2) were identified as representing a scene from Jean François de Saint Lambert’s sentimental tale, Sara Th. . . . First published in 1765, this moralizing romance tells the story of a beautiful and well-bred young English woman who falls in love with a humble but educated Scottish farmer. Forsaking an arranged marriage, Sara weds the farmer, Philips, and the couple lives happily and productively on the farm, their relationship and attitude toward life continually inspired by the extraordinary library that was the gift of her father (among its volumes are copies of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Émile). Saint Lambert’s tale is a paean to sensibilité, the virtues of honesty and sincerity, and the emotional satisfaction of parenthood. Notably, Sara breastfeeds her children, and one of Saint Lambert’s points is that such “natural” mothering is a primary reason for their intimate familial bonding. The scenes depicted in Fragonard’s paintings are evidently the one witnessed by the story’s narrator, a traveler who visits Sara and Philips at their farmhouse: “I saw them enter a room off the garden, its window open: they went together to a cradle where their fifth child was lying; the two of them knelt by the cradle, by turn looking at their child and at each other, all the while holding hands and smiling. I was enchanted by this touching scene of conjugal love and parental tenderness.”
Can one assume that the subject of the National Gallery’s painting is also drawn from Saint Lambert’s tale, even though it cannot definitively be identified with the picture described in the Senneville sale? Its general subject, specific actions, and overall mood are entirely consistent with the story of Sara and with Fragonard’s representation of the key moment in the small version in the Rothschild Collection (fig. 1). The depiction of Sara herself is remarkably similar to the description of Saint Lambert’s narrator: “a woman of twenty-five or thirty, she was blonde and fresh, if a bit sunburned; she had large dark eyes and a very white throat, which she left completely exposed.” One would not demand or expect that Fragonard be so literal in his conception, but if additional evidence were needed, it has been provided by Emma Barker: she recognized the striking relationship between The Visit to the Nursery and an engraving after a design by Jean Michel Moreau le Jeune for an edition of Saint Lambert’s tale published around 1776. The images are so similar in composition and details — for example, the pairing of the two children at the right edge, the tilt of Sara’s head, the cat and ball — as to suggest the artists were responding directly to each other’s work. Barker believed that Moreau’s print must have come first, “since it explains the elegant dress, befitting a prosperous farmer and his wife, which sets the couple apart from the figures who people Fragonard’s other rural genre scenes.” Yet surely Fragonard did not need Moreau’s example, since figures in elegant dress populate his genre scenes throughout his oeuvre, even if he may have been inspired by the 1775 luxury illustrated edition to paint a series of pictures based on the story of Sara. In any case, he made the subject his own, reimagining the scene as a broad and stable horizontal composition (as opposed to Moreau’s strongly vertical arrangement) and introducing the elderly woman in place of the old man (Sara’s father) who appears in the print. She has been identified convincingly not as a wet nurse but as a sage-femme, or midwife.
As is often the case with Fragonard’s oeuvre, the date of the present painting has proved elusive, and scholars have placed it anywhere from the mid-1760s to the late 1770s, a time when he is considered to have painted several other family pictures. The Visit to the Nursery is an unusually classical composition consisting of a series of horizontal, vertical, and triangular forms arranged neatly before the viewer, which might argue for the earlier dating in the mid-1760s, near the time of the grand Corésus and Callirhoé (Salon of 1765; Paris, Musée du Louvre), his most academic production. Yet the blond tonality, the figure types, and the evenly applied paint surface point more toward the mid-1770s. This date would be consistent with the appearance of Moreau’s engraving around 1775. Alexandre Ananoff published a pen and wash drawing that closely resembles this painting. Rather than being a study, this highly finished drawing would appear to have been done afterward, as a finished work of art in its own right, as Colin Eisler proposed. It first appeared in a sale in 1779, suggesting a terminus ad quem for the date of the oil.
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), 182–187.
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.
January 1, 2009