Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1780-1850), the son of a painter, fathered another painter, Théophile Fragonard (1806–1876). I have not been able to find much about the relationship between Alexandre-Évariste and Théophile, but an intimation on the character of Alexandre-Évariste may best be gleaned from an anecdote concerning him and his father, Jean-Honoré.
Following the Revolution, Papa Fragonard’s pictures were considered irrelevant by the new power elite. The rich Rococo curves and seductive colorations did not meet with Revolutionary zeal; and though Papa Fragonard’s political leanings were sympathetic to the Revolution, the new cultural arbiters would not meet him even halfway. The unkindest cut, undoubtedly, was from his own son.
One day when Papa Fragonard was returning to his home, he saw smoke rising from the chimney and found that a bunches of his drawing were being burned by Alexandre-Évariste, who was shouting, “This is the holocaust of ‘good taste!’” Surely there is a special place in hell for children like that.
Papa Fragonard left for Grasse in 1793 during the Reign of Terror (and I don’t mean the terror created by Alexandre-Évariste). He returned to Paris a poor and broken man. All of his patrons had disappeared, but he was saved from poverty by arch Neoclassicist Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), who was clearly a better man than Fragonard’s own son. David found him employment in the Museum Service, where he lived out the rest of his life.
In today’s picture, Alexandre-Évariste imagines the studio of the great Renaissance artist Raphael (1483 –1520), while painting the Madonna. I must confess that I have a marked weakness for paintings set in artists studios: they offer glimpses, both real and idealized, of the how a painter sees himself and his work. That Alexandre-Évariste is a Neoclassicist is evident from the cleanliness and austerity of the studio he creates for Raphael: where such places are often case-study biohazards, Alexandre-Évariste paints a studio remarkably tidy and clean. The mahl stick looks as if it has never been soiled by paint, and the easel unstained and the corner bust dusted.
His version of Raphael is surprisingly blonde and girlish, the pink hose covering his legs complimenting the reddish-orange of his dress-like tunic. He does have the important essentials right, though: Raphael reaches up towards his Madonna’s breast, and it was postulated at the time of his death that Raphael died from too many intense carnal experiences. (Insert your own joke here.) It is also possible that Raphael has in his studio the best behaved infant in the history of art history. The pink cherub seems to sit contentedly by while the great artist puts the Virgin through her paces; I think, perhaps, the finished picture might have been more interesting if the infant was misbehaving.
Look at the subtle mastery of the work. The rich shadow thrown by Raphael on his own canvas, the lines beneath the model Virgin’s robes, the hints of the picture-within-the-picture. This is virtuosity of a type quite common at the time, but virtually unheard of in our artistically untrained era.
But what I find most fascinating about the picture is that Alexandre-Évariste actually alters his natural style to accommodate the picture. He somewhat mistakenly puts Raphael in the Mannerist tradition, and paints in a style more consistent with the Mannerists. Look at the pinkish coloration of the three principals, the billowing of the model Virgin’s veil, the carefully positioned shaft of light behind her. All of this strikes me more as Alexandre-Évariste painting in a late Renaissance style within the confines of his own Neoclassicism. Whatever his probably failing as human being, Alexandre-Évariste was a magnificent painter.