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Jean Honoré Fragonard
Biography



Jean Honoré Fragonard was born at Grasse on 5 April 1732, to a merchant's family. At the age of 6, his family moved from the sunny southern town to Paris. At the age of thirteen he was placed as a clerk with a notary. Obsessed with painting, though, his parents took him to see Boucher, a most fashionable painter. Lacking any training, Fragonard was not trained at first by Boucher, but was sent to Chardin. Life as an apprentice was tedious, however, and Fragonard's lack of patience with copying eventually provoked Chardin's ire, and he was sent packing. Fragonard nailed his courage to the sticking place and approached Boucher again; this time with a number of sketches he had made based on pictures he had seen in Parisian churches.

Impressed, Boucher finally accepted him as student (and eventually friend). He encouraged him to apply for the Grand Prix for painting, and his winning composition Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols earned him a permanent place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Destined for Rome, Fragonard enrolled at the Ecole Royale des Elèves Protégés in 1753. Under the tutelege of Carl van Loo he studied history, geography, mythology - enjoying it so much that when an opening was available in Rome, he petitioned the committee asking to stay until the end of term with van Loo.

In 1756 Fragonard left for the French Academy in Rome. There he studied under Natoire. Although discouraged with the quality of Fragonard's work at first (and especially his lack of decisiveness) he was eventually won over. While in Rome, Fragonard became very close to Hugh Robert and Abbé de Saint-Non. The latter took him to Naples, Bologna and Venice where the young painter made a special study of Tiepolo. Returning to Paris, he created an uninspired and rote painting for the 1765 Salon entitled High Priest Coresus sacrificing himself for Callirrhoe. Perfectly suited for the Salon, he won unanimous admission to the Academy, but the public was as unimpressed as Fragonard himself. He realised that he was not cut out for this kind of painting, turned his back on academic art, and began doing the discretely erotic pictures which soon brought him fame and success.

Fragonard was probably the swiftest painter of all time. His success can be partly attributed to this dizzying velocity. Not constrained by his subjects, Fragonard captures the acceleration of time, the frivolity of the moment, the foibles and superficiality of his time. Never attempting to moralise or paint a reality, he does indeed paint a portrait of the 18th century. Peering closely, you can see it in every hurried daub and stroke - each abandoned in eagerness for the next. His paintings are so very like the society he painted, ever on the move for the next diversion, the next entertainment. Such a headlong rush into pleasure could only sustain itself for a short time.

The end of the French monarchy brought the end of Fragonard's popularity, but did not dim his inimitable spirit. The revolution cut short his career and reduced him to poverty, but David (perhaps remembering Fragonard's influence) offered him a position on the Museum Commission. He no longer painted, but had a part in preserving the paintings of the past.

Out of his element in a world changed out of recognition, Fragonard never lost the joy of the times that he lived through. He died in the summer of 1806 of a stroke while eating ice cream. Luxury made him, his joy in it and his skill at portraying it, and in the end, luxury killed him too.

"He who has not lived before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of living." This remark by Talleyrand may serve to exculpate Fragonard's son - for the sin he committed when he burned a large collection of his father's prints saying, "I am offering a holocaust to good taste". Only those who lived it may truly comment on it, and Jean Honoré Fragonard remains the perfect spokesman for an age of momentary pleasures and quick delights, unthinking elegance and never-ending grace.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

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