This small painting on paper, recently rediscovered, is among the few surviving oil sketches by Fragonard that plausibly could have been painted in the open air. It thus represents a significant addition to the artist’s oeuvre, illuminating a little-known aspect of his practice as a landscapist.
The study has all the character of a quick response to observed nature, as if the artist were recording an impression glimpsed from a carriage window as it rolled through the countryside. Beginning with paper prepared with a thin white ground, the artist quickly outlined the major forms, possibly using black chalk or crayon.
The outline is most easily seen via infrared reflectography of the mountain range in the distance.
Mountain Landscape at Sunset first appeared in 1996, undocumented and uncatalogued, at a small auction at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris,
Conversation with James Mackinnon, from whom the National Gallery acquired the painting.
Oil on paper affixed to panel, 28.5 × 38 cm; Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), 201, no. 97.
Annecy, Musée-château (on loan from Paris, Musée du Louvre); Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard (Paris, 1989), 86, no. 135.
On this question, see Jacques Wilhelm, “Fragonard as a Painter of Realistic Landscapes,” Art Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1948): 296 – 305; Seymour Slive, “A Fragonard Landscape after Jacop Van Ruisdael’s Wooded Landscape with a Pond,” in The Shape of the Past: Studies in Honor of Franklin D. Murphy (Los Angeles, 1981), 268 – 276; Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard (Paris, 1987), 184 – 201.
In the mid-eighteenth century the custom of drawing outdoors was an established part of a young artist’s training, and Fragonard is justly famous for the spectacular series of landscape drawings he produced during his early sojourn in Italy from 1756 to 1761, when he was a pensioner at the Académie de France in Rome.
For a fine selection of Fragonard’s Italian landscape drawings (from both his early trip and his second trip in 1773 – 1774), see Catherine Boulot, Jean-Pierre Cuzin, and Pierre Rosenberg, J. H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Roma (Rome, 1990).
For a historical overview, see Philip Conisbee, “Pre-Romantic Plein-Air Painting,” Art History 2, no. 4 (Dec. 1979): 413 – 428; Philip Conisbee, Painting from Nature: The Tradition of Open-Air Oil Sketching from the 17th to 19th Centuries (London, 1980); Philip Conisbee et al., In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting (Washington, DC, 1996).
Roger de Piles, Cours de peinture par principes (The Principles of Painting) (London, 1743; French ed. Paris, 1708), 244 – 245; the quote is from the English edition of 1743, 148.
H. N. Opperman, Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1686 – 1755 (Paris, 1982).
Philip Conisbee et al., In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting (Washington, DC, 1996), 112 – 113, no. 2.
See the discussion by Conisbee in Philip Conisbee, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1714 – 1789 (London, 1976).
See, most recently, Jean Penent et al., “La nature l’avait créé peintre”: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1750 – 1819 (Toulouse, 2003).
In this broader context, the re-emergence of Mountain Landscape at Sunset — together with the few other known oil studies by Fragonard — takes its full significance, for it reminds us that Fragonard was more than a late rococo decorative painter in the mold of Boucher. Always a changeable and quixotic artist, he could also respond to and participate in the more “advanced” naturalist tendencies of the art of his time, as Jacques Wilhelm pointed out as long ago as 1948.
“In these landscapes Fragonard is revealed as one of the pioneers of naturalistic landscape painting, which was the precursor of the Barbizon school” (Jacques Wilhelm, Bergeret de Grancourt, voyage d’Italie 1773 – 1774, avec les dessins de Fragonard [Paris, 1948], 298).
As a comparative example, see Alexandre Ananoff, L’oeuvre dessiné de Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 4 vols. (Paris, 1961 – 1970), 2:144, no. 970, fig. 266, a small black chalk drawing that shows a similar motif to the present oil study.
Roger de Piles, Cours de peinture par principes (The Principles of Painting) (London, 1743; French ed. Paris, 1708), English ed., 127 – 129; French ed., 208 – 210.
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), 156–159.
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
(Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1996); (James Mackinnon, London); purchased 14 February 1997 through (W.M. Brady & Co., New York) by NGA.
- Aspects of Landscape 1760-1880, W.M. Brady & Co., Inc., New York, 1996, no. 1, repro.
The support is a handmade laid paper with an undecipherable watermark in the lower left quadrant. There is a pinhole at the center of the top edge. The paper was prepared with thin white ground. Infrared reflectography at 1.2 – 2.5 microns reveals underdrawing in a dry medium outlining the mountain range in the distance. The paint consistency varies from liquid to pastose, and brushwork is visible throughout the composition. The artist painted the foreground thinly, leaving the ground visible. The trees, prepared in the same manner, have been worked over with green and gray dabs of color for more detail. The middle mountain range was begun in a manner similar to the foreground and trees but finished with longer and opaque brushstrokes of impastoed paint. The sky and the clouds are elaborate in detail, color variation, and paint application. The darkest blue in the sky was applied last and in many areas defines the shapes of the trees and of the clouds.
The paper support is in good condition except for its corners, which have been replaced. There is also minor damage along the edges. The paint is in excellent condition with no abrasion or insecure areas. The layer of varnish that coats the surface remains clear.
- 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. 30, 156-159, color repro.