The history of art has few father-and-son acts of any merit. Perhaps one of the most interesting duos was that of Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1780-1850), painter, sculptor and draftsman, who was the son of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), one of the most famous painters during the reign of Louis XV and Louis VXI.
Before looking at Alexandre-Évariste, first a word about Papa Fragonard. Jean-Honoré lived during a time of which Talleyrand said: “No one who did not live before 1789 can have any idea of the sweetness of living.” For members of the upper-classes during that period, life was stimulating and delightful. (The poor, of course, were another story.) It was an age of brilliant and witty conversation, elegant fashions, charming women, style, sophistication, and exquisite art and craftsmanship. Jean-Honoré Fragonard epitomized the entire rococo era, both in all its beauty and its excess.
For an idea of Jean-Honoré’s world and everything it stood for, look at the painting below. Executed with magnificent brio, they are in many ways portraits of fantasy. Painted for the artist’s own pleasure, his pictures cannot help but create pleasure in others. Sometimes the effect is much like a too-rich dessert, but I often find Jean-Honoré’s over-the-top approach delicious.
Alexandre-Évariste, on the other hand, is an entirely different kettle of fish. Alexandre-Évariste was tutored by his father, and by the great Neoclassical master Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). One would be hard pressed to find two more contrasting approaches to seeing the world than the Rococo and the Neoclassical; and, whether from rebellion or sympathy with a changing world, Alexandre-Évariste was a Neoclassicist.
Alexandre-Évariste made his debut at the Salon in 1793 with Timoleon Sacrificing His Brother. He would later create several allegories and make many drawings during the Consulate and the Empire. He would also later evolve into something of a sculptor. He would eventually sculpt the pediment of the Palais Bourbon in Paris – lost to us because it was destroyed in the Revolution of 1830. His luck remained bad at the Palais Bourbon – his 1810 trompe-l’oeil grisailles decorating the Salle des Gardes and the salon behind the peristyle were either destroyed or covered by a later ceiling.
Today’s picture is a portrait of Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard Récamier (1777 – 1849), known as Juliette, a French society leader, whose salon drew Parisians from the leading literary and political circles of the early 19th century. She was most famously painted by David, but I think I prefer this picture more than the more celebrated painting.
Récamier was married to a banker 30 years her senior, and it is believed that the marriage was never consummated. Indeed, there was a rumor at the time that the man she married was really her father, who wanted to make his illegitimate daughter his heir. Whatever the story, Récamier became a darling of the upper crust, celebrated as a great hostess; artists, writers and intellectuals were part of her salon. She was exiled by Napoleon, and spent much time travelling through Europe. Through various misadventures she would lose her considerable fortune, and end her days entertaining visitors in a 17th Century convent.
Récamier was often painted in the garb of a virgin. This is, by any yardstick, quite a stunning picture. Look at how Alexandre-Évariste twists her body, the feet nearly flat on the floor while the torso pivots on the settee. (In fact, the type of sofa on which she liked to recline, the récamier, was named after her.) The exposed shoulders show feminine loveliness, but there is no hint of the voluptuous. The expression may be coy and playful, but in no way carnal. It is easy to see how a woman so girlish and charming could captivate legions of admirers – as was the case with Récamier.
The setting is a Neoclassical paradise, complete with pillars. The cool marble floor and the distant classical building in the background (along with the neutral colored sky) make for a cool picture – heat, sexual and otherwise, is not in the Neoclassical purview. I also draw your attention to the delicate handling of the tassel and, more tellingly, the subtle design of her yellow drapery. Even the design at the tip of her hairpin is executed with a remarkable precision. The portrait has a high level of finish and finesse – this is the work of a master.
Now, take a moment and contrast the portrait above with the painting below. One would be hard pressed to find two more different views of the world. They are, in their way, equally beautiful. But the world of Papa Fragonard is a wonderland of delicious excess, while Alexandre-Évariste finds beauty in control, modeling and exactitude. This is not only the change of one generation into another, this is, within one family, a dramatic change in the way in which the world can be seen.
More of the Fragonards tomorrow.