Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2004
An Artist’s Education: Fragonard and the Old Masters
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, Calif., March 5–June 7, 2004
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, French (1732–1806). Study After Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Immaculate Conception (from the Aracoeli), 1760–61. Black chalk on paper. 17 3/4 x 13 in. The Norton Simon Foundation. F.1970.03.087.D

The Norton Simon Museum’s exhibition of thirty black-chalk drawings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard offered the viewer an unusual challenge. Consisting of drawings after old-master paintings executed by Fragonard during a tour of Italy in 1760–61, the exhibition took as its subject the education of an artist. By positioning near each drawing a small photo reproduction of the original painting that Fragonard was copying, the viewer was inevitably drawn into a game of comparison as well as a quest to find traces of the mature artist in these accomplished early copies.

I was struck first by how faithful Fragonard was to the originals—identical poses, identical facial expressions, identical compositions and proportions—so it was surprising to come across a small number of drawings in which he noticeably diverged. For example, Fragonard’s drawing after Pietro Cortona’s fresco of Minerva snatching Adolescence from the arms of Venus, on the ceiling of the Sala di Venere in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, convincingly evokes the artist’s mature work—playful, erotic, and executed with swift strokes. Even more revealing, Fragonard reduced the crowded composition of the original to only five figures to focus on what seems to interest him most—the emotional exchanges among his subjects. At this point I traced my way back to another mythological scene—a study after a painting by Guido Cagnacci originally in the Palazzo Zambeccari, Bologna—that similarly departs from its source and reminds us that the drawing belongs to the eighteenth, rather than the seventeenth, century.

Cagnacci’s painting of the Rape of Lucretia1 portrays a young, richly dressed man with a dagger threatening the woman who lies stretched out in front of him. Although the reclining nude female sketched in the foreground of Fragonard’s drawing is identical to Cagnacci’s Lucretia, the central male figure leaning over her has been transformed into a winged nude who cradles an arrow in his right hand. Instead of an act of violence, we witness the meeting of two lovers (probably Cupid and Psyche). A clear portrait of Fragonard’s ethos emerges, one that idealizes romantic love.

A small section of the show was devoted to copies of paintings by the Carracci, in which Fragonard ably reproduced the quality of line in the originals, as well as the poses and exaggerated musculature of the nudes. His study after Annibale Carracci’s Venus and Cupid and Agostino Carracci’s Pluto and Cerberus, both from the Galleria Estense in Modena, demonstrates his mastery of foreshortening and of modeling—in short, the strength of his academic training. Interestingly, Fragonard singled out and carefully framed the figures of Venus and Pluto, creating a study in contrasts (male/female, hard/soft) that emerges as a secondary subject of the drawing, independent of its sources.

An intriguing stylistic contrast is Fragonard’s study after Peter Paul Rubens’s Mars and the Horrors of War (Florence, Palazzo Pitti), in which the artist focused on reproducing the painterly quality of the original and its light and dark contrasts. Indeed, after studying all of the drawings in this exhibition it is obvious that Fragonard possessed a connoisseur’s eye for the essential elements of each artist’s style.

The Norton Simon owns 139 drawings produced by Fragonard for Abbé de Saint-Non, a patron and friend (the British Museum in London and the Warsaw University Library in Poland also have substantial collections), who intended to use them as illustrations in a series of published volumes (see Eunice Williams, Drawings by Fragonard in North American Collections [Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1978], 46). It is interesting to consider them for a moment in that light—as documents rather than as “drawings by Fragonard.” Carefully composed and finished, the drawings are consistent in terms of media (black crayon or black chalk on white paper) and format, and many are framed by brown-ink borders that were added, apparently, by Saint-Non (46). This uniformity befits their role as documents, not just of individual works of art but also of a substantial portion of the artistic canon of the mid-eighteenth century.

Sheila Cummins
Editor, Bibliography of the History of Art, Getty Research Institute

1. There is a version of this painting in the Galleria dell’Accademia di San Luca, Rome. Pier Giorgio Pasini, Guido Cagnacci, pittore (1601–1663) (Rimini: Luisè Editore, 1986), 236, cat. no. 39.