The Happy Family must have been one of Fragonard’s more popular compositions, for it is known in numerous variants and was engraved twice.
All of these compositions are reproduced in Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard (Paris, 1987), 458. For the watercolor, see 459 – 460, no. 223, and Thérèse Burollet, Musée Cognacq-Jay: peintures et dessins (Paris, 1980), 241 – 242, no. 132.
[Du Barry, Radix de Sainte Foy, La Ferté et al.] sale, Paris, February 17, 1777, lot 55.
M. Hébert and Y. Sjöberg, Inventaire du fonds français, vol. 12, Graveurs du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1973 ), 509 – 510, no. 159.
Oil on paper, affixed to canvas, 19 × 22 cm (Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard [Paris, 1989], no. 338).
See Thérèse Burollet, Musée Cognacq-Jay: peintures et dessins (Paris, 1980), 241 – 242, no. 132, where it is claimed that the watercolor was made as a model for Delaunay’s engraving. As Pierre Rosenberg has shown, however, the engraving was after a painting (Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard [Paris, 1989]). Nor does the watercolor have the characteristics of having been made for the print; it is not squared for transfer and is considerably larger than Delaunay’s engraving.
The expert in charge of the du Barry et al. sale, Alexandre Joseph Paillet, described the painting as “handled with much verve and of excellent effect; it represents an interior of a room in which there is a woman and several children; a man, who appears to surprise them, is seen at the casement window.”
“Un tableau touché avec beaucoup de feu et d’un effet excellent, il représente l’intérieur d’une chambre dans laquelle est une femme avec plusieurs enfants; on voit paraître à une croisée un homme qui semble les surprendre” (cited in Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard [Paris, 1989], 125).
Roger Portalis, somewhat effusively, referred to the picture’s “avalance de bébés joufflus, grimpant au giron maternel jaloux d’avoir leur part de caresses” (avalanche of chubby babies climbing on their mother’s bosom jealously trying to get their share of hugs; Roger Portalis, Honoré Fragonard: sa vie et son oeuvre [Paris, 1889], 1:115).
As pointed out, the subject and general composition of The Happy Family recall the small genre scenes that Fragonard painted during his first trip to Italy, from 1756 to 1761, while he was a pensioner at the Académie de France in Rome.
Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Fragonard, Life and Work (New York, 1988; French ed. Paris, 1987), 189. For examples of these early paintings, see Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), nos. 51, 60 – 84.
Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Pierre Rosenberg, “Fragonard e Hubert Robert: un percorso romano,” in Catherine Boulot, Jean-Pierre Cuzin, and Pierre Rosenberg, J. H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Roma (Rome, 1990), 21 – 30.
For the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s picture, see Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), no. 79; Catherine Boulot, Jean-Pierre Cuzin, and Pierre Rosenberg, J. H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Roma (Rome, 1990), no. 38; Jean Montague Massengale, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (New York, 1993), 62.
Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt, L’art du dix-huitième siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1880 – 1884), 1:302.
Despite its resemblance to earlier works, however, The Happy Family and its variants are usually dated to the mid-1770s, after Fragonard’s second trip to Italy in 1773 – 1774. Most of the genre scenes painted in the earlier period are characterized by a very free handling that gives the works the feeling of oil sketches, quickly dashed off with the energy one would expect from a youthful artist’s first response to the stimulating environment of Rome.
A notable exception is the highly finished version of The Stolen Kiss (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), painted around 1759 for the Bailli de Breteuil; see Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), no. 63.
Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), no. 367. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Fragonard, Life and Work (New York, 1988; French ed. Paris, 1987), no. 317, dates the work to c. 1778; Georges Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard: Complete Edition (New York, 1960), no. 22, is the only specialist to place it earlier, in the 1750s, as a student work. A beautiful watercolor version (Paris, Musée du Louvre; see Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard [Paris, 1987], no. 229), which is similar in style to the watercolor of The Happy Family, was exhibited at the Salon de la Correspondance in 1781.
The formal relationships between The Happy Family and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt reinforce the sense in which Fragonard has invested The Happy Family with spiritual feeling, if not outright religiosity. The subject of the National Gallery’s painting is undoubtedly secular, but the artist has clearly sought to remind the viewer of the Holy Family, living in their humble shed yet brilliantly illuminated by a heavenly light. Fragonard frequently made this allusion, repeating it in
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom, 4 vols. (New York, 1979), 46.
Like other genre scenes painted by Fragonard in the 1760s and 1770s, The Happy Family bears the unmistakable influence of
Edgar Munhall, Jean-Baptiste Greuze 1725 – 1805 (Hartford, CT, 1976), 20.
Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), no. 118. For a discussion of Greuze’s influence on Fragonard, see Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Fragonard, Life and Work (New York, 1988; French ed. Paris, 1987), 89 – 92.
See Carol Duncan, “Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in French Art,” Art Bulletin 55 (Dec. 1973): 570 – 583; Mary D. Sheriff, “Fragonard’s Erotic Mothers and the Politics of Reproduction,” in Eroticism and the Body Politic, ed. Lynn Hunt (Baltimore, 1991), 14 – 40.
“Cela prêche la population, et peint très-pathétiquement le bonheur et le prix inestimables de la paix domestique.” Jean Seznec and Jean Adhémar, eds., Diderot, Salons, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1957 – 1967; rev. ed. Oxford, 1975 – ), 2:155.
Martin Schieder makes this point in The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting (New Haven and Ottawa, 2003), 282.
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), 176–181.
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
Possibly collection of Monsieur Servat, at least in 1777, or possibly (sale of Comtesse du Barry, Radix de Sainte Foy, La Ferré, et al., by Alexandre J. Paillet at Hôtel d'Aligre, Paris, 17 February 1777, no. 55); purchased by Aubert. Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt [1747-1827]. Poilleux collection, Paris. Eduardo Guinle [1878-1941], Rio de Janeiro. (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris and New York); sold 1919 to Nicolas Ambatielos, London. William R. Timken [1866-1949], New York, by 1935; by inheritance to his widow, Lillian Guyer Timken [1881-1959], New York; bequest 1960 to NGA.
- Exposition de tableaux anciens principalement de l'école française du XVIIe et du XVIIIe siècle, Galerie Wildenstein, Paris, 1912, no. 16.
- French Painting and Sculpture of the XVIII Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1935, no. 49, repro.
- Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Official Art Exhibition of the Great Lakes Exposition, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1936, no. 59.
- The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Altes Museum, Berlin, 2003-2004, no. 79, repro.
- Portalis, Roger. Honoré Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre. 2 vols. Paris, 1889: 115, 121, 279, 280.
- Josz, Virgile. Fragonard: moeurs du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1901: 141.
- Nolhac, Pierre de. J.-H. Fragonard. Paris, 1906: 130.
- Wildenstein, Georges. The Paintings of Fragonard. New York, 1960: no. 368
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 52
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 44, repro.
- Mandel, Gabriele. L'Opera completa di Fragonard. Milan, 1972: no. 390, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 132, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 341, no. 461, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 158, repro.
- Cuzin, Jean-Pierre. "Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Vie et oeuvre." Fribourg, 1987. English edition New York, 1988: 188-189, 193, fig. 230, 319, no. 311, repro.
- Rosenberg, Pierre. Fragonard. Exh. Cat. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987: 456, 458, fig. 1.
- Rosenberg, Pierre. Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard. Paris, 1989: no. 336, repro.
- Sheriff, Mary D. "Fragonard’s Erotic Mothers and the Politics of Reproduction.” In Eroticism and the Body Politic. Ed. Lynn Hunt. Baltimore, 1991: 15, 17, 19, fig 1.1.
- 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. 36, 176-181, color repro.
The painting is secured to an eight-member oval stretcher with inset horizontal and vertical crossbars. The stretcher is probably original to the painting. The primary support is a loosely woven, medium-weight, plain-weave fabric. The painting has been lined, and the original tacking margins remain intact. The support was prepared with a double ground consisting of a red layer beneath a gray layer. The paint film is thin, and much of the foreground is painted in dark brown glazes with thin blocks of opaque white colors pulled over them. Opaque paints were also used in the dark architectural background.
The condition of the painting is generally good. In a past restoration prior to its acquisition, the painting was selectively cleaned. The varnish was left on the dark passages but removed from the lighter areas. A subsequent layer of varnish was applied, and all of the varnish on the painting has darkened and yellowed.