Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a French painter and printmaker whose late Rococo manner was distinguished by remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism. One of the most prolific artists active in the last decades of the Ancien Régime, Fragonard produced more than 550 paintings (not counting drawings and etchings), of which only five are dated. Among his most popular works are genre paintings conveying an atmosphere of intimacy and veiled eroticism.
Fragonard was articled to a Paris notary when his father’s circumstances became strained through unsuccessful speculations, but showed such talent and inclination for art that he was taken at the age of eighteen to François Boucher. Boucher recognized the youth’s rare gifts but, disinclined to waste his time with one so inexperienced, sent him to Chardin’s atelier. Fragonard studied for six months under the great luminist, then returned more fully equipped to Boucher, whose style he soon acquired so completely that the master entrusted him with the execution of replicas of his paintings.
On 17 September 1756, he took up his abode at the French Academy in Rome. While at Rome, Fragonard contracted a friendship with a fellow painter, Hubert Robert. In 1760, they toured Italy together, executing numerous sketches of local scenery. It was in these romantic gardens, with their fountains, grottos, temples and terraces, that Fragonard conceived the dreams which he was subsequently to render in his art. He also learned to admire the masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools imitating their loose and vigorous brushstrokes. Added to this influence was the deep impression made upon his mind by the florid sumptuousness of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, whose works he had an opportunity to study in Venice before he returned to Paris in 1761.
The demand of the wealthy art patrons of Louis XV’s pleasure-loving and licentious court turned him definitely towards those scenes of love and voluptuousness with which his name will ever be associated, and which are only made acceptable by the tender beauty of his colour and the virtuosity of his facile brushwork.
For half a century or more he was so completely ignored that Wilhelm Lubke’s 1873 art history volume omits the very mention of his name. Subsequent re-evaluation has confirmed his position among the all-time masters of French painting. The influence of Fragonard’s handling of local colour and expressive, confident brushstroke on the Impressionists cannot be overestimated. Fragonard’s paintings, alongside those of François Boucher, seem to sum up an era.
Fragonard returned to Paris early in the nineteenth century, where he died in 1806, almost completely forgotten. On December 5, 2013, in Bonham’s New Bond Street, London, Salerooms the Fragonard portrait of François-Henri duc d’Harcourt sold for £17,106,500 Sterling – US $28,058,081 – setting a world record price for the artist at auction.