The monumental canvases of
Pierre de Nolhac, J.-H. Fragonard (1732 – 1806) (Paris, 1906), 69. Nolhac’s hypothesis was echoed more recently by Cuzin (Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Fragonard, Life and Work [New York, 1988; French ed. Paris, 1987], 202 – 203), who later retracted the idea (Jean-Pierre Cuzin, “Fragonard: un nouvel examen,” Revue d l’Art 80 : 83 – 87).
The X-radiographs show that, while The Swing may have been slightly cut at the left edge, Blindman’s Buff probably retains its original proportions (there is cusping along all four edges). Similarly, the X-radiographs of
Landscape — particularly gardens — formed a significant aspect of Fragonard’s oeuvre. While little documentation or contemporaneous commentary have survived, such works were admired and appreciated during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, as his early biographer, Charles Le Carpentier, indicated:
When this artist wished to be true to himself, he created delicious landscapes where one always finds the memory and the image of nature. They are remarkable above all by their astonishing effect of light and the beautiful forms of their terracing. His trees are treated with taste. . . . Could anyone better understand the magic of the skies he paints so exquisitely, and seize the beautiful effects that nature reveals only after a storm, or when a cloudy and nebulous sky lets a few sunrays dart to the ground.
“Mais quand cet artiste a voulu être lui-même, il a crée des paysages délicieux où l’on retrouve toujours le souvenir et l’image de la nature. Ils sont recommandables sur-tout par l’effet surprenant de la lumière, et la belle forme des terrasses. Ses arbres sont touchés avec goût. . . . Peut-on mieux entendre la magie des ciels qu’il peignait d’une manière exquise, et saisir les beaux effets que la nature ne présente qu’après les orages, ou quand le ciel couvert et nébuleux laisser darder quelques rayons de soleil sur la terre” (Charles le Carpentier, Galerie des peintres célèbres, avec des remarques sur le genre de chaque maître [Paris, 1821], 281).
Le Carpentier’s comment that such paintings evoked a “memory” of nature was astute, for Blindman’s Buff and The Swing are replete with reminders of the fabulous gardens that Fragonard first depicted when he was a student at the Académie de France in Rome from 1756 to 1761. Fragonard’s experience of Italy had sparked his interest in landscape drawing and painting, an inclination he developed on numerous drawing excursions throughout Rome and the Italian countryside. The most remarkable results of these efforts are the extraordinary red chalk drawings of the gardens of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, where the artist stayed for several weeks in the summer of 1760 as the guest of the Abbé de Saint-Non
For example, the imposing statue atop the cascade in Blindman’s Buff is similar to the one on the Fountain of Rome at the Villa d’Este (see David R. Coffin, The Villa d’Este at Tivoli [Princeton, 1960], fig. 25).
One might also recall a nineteenth-century account by A. de Launay, Salons de Paris, April 10, 1859, that Fragonard “had himself decorated [his] studio in a theatrical manner; at the back hung a curtain on which his imagination had created vegetation of a richness unknown to our climate with, in the foreground, bushes, creepers, climbing plants, imitation rocks, and flowers, the whole arranged so as to produce the most surprising effects; in the corner stood a child’s swing . . . on which he used to pose his models” (see Georges Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard: Complete Edition [New York, 1960], 24 n. 3).
Blindman’s Buff and The Swing were produced long after Fragonard’s initial trip to Italy. The artist’s technique in these works is free and expansive, with little of the precise brushwork and devotion to detail that characterize the smaller landscapes he produced in Italy and shortly after his return to Paris in 1761.
For example, Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), nos. 80 – 84, 120.
Georges Wildenstein, “Un amateur de Boucher et de Fragonard: Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret, 1715 – 1785,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. 6, 58 (July – Aug. 1961): 39 – 84; Jacques Wilhelm, Bergeret de Grancourt, voyage d’Italie 1773 – 1774, avec les dessins de Fragonard (Paris, 1948).
Alexandre Ananoff, L’oeuvre dessiné de Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 4 vols. (Paris, 1961 – 1970), 3: no. 2151, fig. 585; José-Luis de los Llanos, Fragonard et le dessin français au XVIIIe siècle dans les collections du Petit Palais (Paris, 1992), 84 – 85, no. 39.
Most scholars date the paintings to 1775 – 1780, although Rosenberg tentatively suggested a slightly earlier date, before the trip to Italy (Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard [Paris, 1987], 342). He later changed his mind (Pierre Rosenberg, “Les mystères d’une fête,” L’Objet d’art 1 [Nov. 1987]: 62 – 67).
The grand scale and broad, freely handled technique suggest that the paintings were conceived as decorations to be installed into the paneling on the wall of a salon.
Eisler proposed that an architectural element such as a pilaster separated the two canvases and that the paintings may have been placed on curved walls, providing “an almost stereoscopic trompe l’oeil effect” (Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian [Oxford, 1977], 330).
“Premièrement, un tableau peint sur toile dans son cadre doré, representant une étude de paysage fait en Italie par Fragonard avec figures, sujet de la Main chaude; un autre tableau sur toile, par le même, representant aussi un paysage d’Italie avec figures, sujet d’une Balançoire, prises ensemble cent livres” (cited in Georges Wildenstein, “L’abbé de Saint-Non artiste et mécène,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. 6, 54 [Nov. 1959]: 238 – 242).
Richard Rand, “Two Fragonard Landscapes from Saint-Non’s Collection,” Burlington Magazine 133, no. 1057 (Apr. 1991): 246 – 248.
A clue to the paintings’ original purpose may be found in their relationship to another of Fragonard’s masterpieces of garden painting, the so-called Fête at Saint-Cloud, also datable to the late 1770s
Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard (Paris, 1987), 344 – 345, nos. 162 – 165; see also Pierre Rosenberg, “Fragonard, La Fête à Saint-Cloud, Louis-Pierre Marchal de Sainscy, et la Banque de France,” in Place des Victoires: histoire, architecture, société, ed. Isabelle Dubois et al. (Paris, 2004), 246 – 257. Although it is one of the artist’s largest canvases, Fête at Saint-Cloud came to light only in 1862, when an inventory of the Banque de France was compiled. In his monograph, Portalis — the first to publish the painting — noted that the identity of the person who commissioned it was unknown (Roger Portalis, Honoré Fragonard: sa vie et son oeuvre [Paris, 1889], 1:82 – 83). Nolhac (Pierre de Nolhac, J.-H. Fragonard (1732 – 1806) [Paris, 1906], 69) first suggested that it was “perhaps executed for the duc de Penthièvre” (“peut-être exécuté pour le duc de Penthièvre”). Because the bank had been the Hôtel de Toulouse, the Paris residence of Louis Bourbon, the duc de Penthièvre, it has generally been assumed that the duc — the last legitimate male descendant of Louis XIV — commissioned the work from Fragonard. (In 1769 Penthièvre’s daughter had married the duc de Chartres, who owned the land that encompassed the Parc de Saint-Cloud; see Joseph Baillio, “La Fête de Saint-Cloud de Fragonard,” L’Oeil 399 [Oct. 1988]: 40 – 47, whose interpretation of the painting is based on the patronage of the duc.) Despite the attraction of this idea, there is no supporting documentation to confirm it. None of the guidebooks from the period describe the painting, even when giving detailed accounts of the residence, and the two inventories of the Hôtel de Toulouse, compiled in 1794 and 1795 during the revolutionary seizures, fail to mention it. Moreover, an unpublished study of the archives of the Banque de France in 1972 by Jean de Cayeux (in the archives of Galerie Cailleux, Paris) found no trace of the painting before the late nineteenth century. The painting is first recorded in an appraisal of 1862, when it is listed with several works — by Boucher and others — whose provenances are equally mysterious. The Hôtel de Toulouse apparently was pillaged during the revolution, and Cayeux suggests that the Fragonard and other eighteenth-century works might have been acquired by the bank in the early nineteenth century to decorate the rooms in an appropriate style. An earlier unpublished report, written when Cayeux appraised the Fête at Saint-Cloud for the bank in 1946, already had raised doubts about the duc de Penthièvre’s commission of the painting. I wish to thank Marianne Roland Michel for allowing me to study these revealing documents. Nevertheless, until recently most scholars have repeatedly claimed that the duc de Penthièvre commissioned the work from Fragonard.
That the paintings were a series was particularly apparent at the Fragonard exhibition in 1987 – 1988, when they were displayed together in public for the first time (Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard [Paris, 1987]). Apart from their differing states of preservation, it was clear that the pictures were closely related in style, color, subject, and proportions of the figures.
Sets of landscapes often served for interior decoration in the eighteenth century. In the 1770s and 1780s
See Jean de Cayeux, Hubert Robert et les jardins (Paris, 1987); John D. Bandiera, “Form and Meaning in Hubert Robert’s Ruin Caprices: Four Paintings of Fictive Ruins for the Château at Méréville,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 15, no. 1 (1989): 21 – 37; Paula Rea Radisich, “ ‘La chose publique’: Hubert Robert’s Decorations for the ‘petit salon’ at Méréville,” in The Consumption of Culture 1600 – 1800: Image, Object, Text, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (London and New York, 1995), 401 – 415.
The Progress of Love is a rare instance in which the pictures and intended setting can be plausibly reconstructed. Part of Fragonard’s decoration for the Hôtel Matignon in Paris, four overdoors of the seasons, remains in situ, although the salon apparently was redecorated in the nineteenth century. At that time, one of the panels, Winter, was sold and is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; see Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Fragonard, Life and Work (New York, 1988; French ed. Paris, 1987), 269, nos. 50 – 53. First proposed in Pierre Rosenberg, “Les mystères d’une fête,” L’Objet d’art 1 (Nov. 1987): 62 – 67, and elaborated in Pierre Rosenberg, “Fragonard, La Fête à Saint-Cloud, Louis-Pierre Marchal de Sainscy, et la Banque de France,” in Place des Victoires: histoire, architecture, société, ed. Isabelle Dubois et al. (Paris, 2004), 246 – 257.
H. Fragonnard [sic]. Five large pictures by this artist, designed and executed to decorate the walls of a salon; they represent diverse landscape subjects with varied and graceful sites, and are embellished with interesting figures.
“Cinq grands Tableaux de cet Artiste, composés et executés pour former la tenture d’un Sallon; ils representent divers sujets de Paysages de sites variés et gracieux, et sont ornés de figures interresantes. T[oile].” Catalogue d’une collection choisie de tableaux de differens maîtres . . . qui composoient le cabinet de M.[-], Paris, April 29, 1789, no. 41. See Pierre Rosenberg, “Les mystères d’une fête,” L’Objet d’art 1 (Nov. 1987): 62 – 67.
While the identification must remain speculative, the circumstantial evidence assembled by Rosenberg is provocative.
Pierre Rosenberg, “Fragonard, La Fête à Saint-Cloud, Louis-Pierre Marchal de Sainscy, et la Banque de France,” in Place des Victoires: histoire, architecture, société, ed. Isabelle Dubois et al. (Paris, 2004), 246 – 257.
Marianne Roland Michel, “À Propos de portraits de famille: quelques nouvelles attributions,” Burlington Magazine 128, no. 1000 (July 1986): 546 – 552, reproduces a drawing by Carmontelle portraying the Sainscy family, including Louis René and his tutor, the Abbé Fleury (fig. 122).
Among his French paintings were twelve Bouchers, including the celebrated Rising and Setting of the Sun, painted as tapestry cartoons for the marquise de Pompadour, which Louis Pierre had purchased at the Pompadour sale in 1766 (see John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Pictures [London, 1989], 3: nos. P485, P486, 77 – 78; Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher [Lausanne and Paris, 1976], 2:109 – 115, nos. 422 and 423); landscapes by
“Mais nous n’avons rien pu découvrir sur les circonstances exactes de la commande à Fragonard d’une série de paysages décoratifs pour son hotel de la rue des Fossés-Montmartre, sinon que celle-ci doit être antérieure à 1782 et postérieure au retour de l’artiste du second voyage d’Italie (1773 – 1774)” (But we have not been able to discover anything about the specific circumstances of the commission to Fragonard for a series of decorative landscapes for his townhouse in the rue des Fossés-Montmartre, other than it must have been before 1782 and after the return of the artist from his second voyage to Italy [1773 – 1774]). Pierre Rosenberg, “Fragonard, La Fête à Saint-Cloud, Louis-Pierre Marchal de Sainscy, et la Banque de France,” in Place des Victoires: histoire, architecture, société, ed. Isabelle Dubois et al. (Paris, 2004), 257.
Unfortunately, the house at 3, rue des Fossés-Montmartre (now 6, rue d’Aboukir), no longer survives, leaving any reconstruction of the original arrangement of Fragonard’s five garden paintings hypothetical.
When seen together, Fragonard’s five paintings share a vision of the garden and park as a commodious setting for all sorts of festivities and amusements as well as amorous dalliance. The various games and entertainments incorporated into Fragonard’s garden paintings were relatively common features of landscape painting in the middle and late eighteenth century.
The activities depicted in Fête at Saint-Cloud, while more unusual, did appear in other works of art, including Boucher’s tapestry, The Charlatans and the Peep Show, designed in 1736 as part of the series “Italian Village Scenes” and last woven at Beauvais in 1762. The design was engraved by Cochin in 1740 (see Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard [Paris, 1987], 340, fig. 6; Alastair Laing, François Boucher (1703 – 1770) [New York, 1986], 334 – 339, no. 86).
Georges Wildenstein, Lancret (Paris, 1924), nos. 77, 226 (figs. 29, 52). In his tapestry designs for the series Amusements champêtres, made for Beauvais in the late 1720s (but in production as late as 1761),
Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), no. 177; John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Pictures (London, 1989), 3:161 – 165, P430. The small Preparation for Blindman’s Buff in the Musée du Louvre (Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard [Paris, 1989], no. 180) also includes the motif of figures preparing a meal outdoors. The themes of blindman’s buff and swinging in Fragonard’s art have been explored by Louis Réau, “Les Colin-maillard de Fragonard,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. 5, 15 (March 1927): 148 – 152; H. Wentzel, “Jean-Honoré Fragonards Schaukel,” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 26 (1964): 187 – 218; Donald Posner, “The Swinging Women of Watteau and Fragonard,” Art Bulletin 64 (March 1982): 75 – 88; Jennifer Milam, “Fragonard and the Blindman’s Game: Interpreting Representations of Blindman’s Buff,” Art History 21, no. 1 (March 1998): 1 – 25, 161; and Jennifer Milam, “Playful Constructions and Fragonard’s Swinging Scenes,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 543 – 559.
While such amusements undoubtedly were enjoyed in eighteenth-century France, modern scholarship has focused on the symbolic meanings that they must have conveyed to viewers of paintings. Fragonard’s juxtaposition of the games of Blindman’s Buff and swinging was pointed, for both activities have been interpreted as alluding to the progress of love. Blindman’s Buff — with its blind protagonist awkwardly seeking a mate — corresponded to the difficulties of courtship, while the rhythmic motion of The Swing — propelled by a companion who pulls on ropes — suggests the culminating act of love.
In a similar juxtaposition produced earlier in his career, Fragonard painted a Blindman’s Buff (Toledo, Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art; Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard [Paris, 1989], no. 41) with a Seesaw (Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza; Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard [Paris, 1989], no. 42).
Albert Pomme de Mirimonde, “Statures et emblèmes dans l’oeuvre d’Antoine Watteau,” Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France 12, no. 1 (1962): 11 – 20.
Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian (Oxford, 1977), 329 – 330. Sculptures play a similar role in many of Fragonard’s other garden scenes. In both the Wallace Collection Swing and
Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian (Oxford, 1977), 330.
Nevertheless, the small size of the figures and their lack of detail might make them ill-suited as bearers of complex meaning, and it is possible that they were included to add visual interest to the landscapes themselves. These works occasionally have been described as characteristic of the sublime in nature, as almost protoromantic in sensibility: “What set out to be a topical scene [Fête at Saint-Cloud] . . . has become a wild poem about the strength of natural forces and puny man.”
Michael Levey, Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting (New York, 1966), 119. See also Thomas W. Gaehtgens, “Fragonard: Fest von Saint-Cloud,” in Bilder vom irdischen Glück: Giorgione, Tizian, Rubens, Watteau, Fragonard, ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Karl Ulrich Majer (Berlin, 1983), 32 – 35; and the interesting discussion by R. G. Saisselin, “The French Garden in the Eighteenth Century: From Belle Nature to the Landscape of Time,” Journal of Garden History 5, no. 3 (July – Sept. 1985): 291 – 294.
“Malgré les charmes que la nature peut y offrir, il faut que nous y [le jardin] trouvions la bonne chère, la chasse, le jeu, les concerts, les spectacles; voilà ce qu’on y désire et ce qu’on y vante” (Louis Carogis de Carmontelle, Jardin de Monceau, près de Paris appartenant à son Altesse Sérénissime Monseigneur le duc de Chartres [Paris, 1779], 3 – 4).
Jennifer Milam, “Playful Constructions and Fragonard’s Swinging Scenes,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 554.
The five paintings are a summation of Fragonard’s lifelong exploration of the theme of the garden. Grand in scale, they are complex and elaborate visualizations of “unadorned” nature in which the compositions, chiaroscuro, brushwork, and activities of the figures re-create the infinite variety of motifs and range of effects that characterized the picturesque garden in eighteenth-century France. In these works Fragonard brought together a diversity of garden types, including a French public park in Fête at Saint-Cloud, a vast estate inspired by the gardens of Italy in Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, and two intimate corners of private gardens, one picturesque, one formal, in A Game of Horse and Rider and A Game of Hot Cockles.
Fragonard’s innovative compositions reflect a remarkable sensitivity toward the character of the picturesque, or “English,” garden that was gaining popularity in France during these years.
On the development of the picturesque garden in France, see Dora Wiebenson, The Picturesque Garden in France (Princeton, 1978).
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), 195–203.
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