Thursday, August 9, 2012

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard Part III: The Lesson of Henry IV

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard’s accomplishments spanned a remarkable range of artistic endeavors, including paintings, sculpture, book illustration, Sévres porcelain and architecture.  His first listing in the livret of the Paris Salon was as an exhibitor in 1793, when he was only 13.  His work in the 1790s reflected revolutionary republican subjects in the neoclassical style, a dramatic break from the Rococo style of his father, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806).

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard really came of age during the restoration, when he changed his subject matter to suit then-contemporary tastes.  He ventured into new territory in 1819 when he attempted history painting.  He specialized in pictures featuring themes and images of the Middle Ages, in many way anticipating the works of later Romantic artists.  He also received important commissions for painted decorations for the Louvre, Versailles and numerous churches including Strasbourg Cathedral, the Church of Ste. Geneviéve, and Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.  He also exhibited easel paintings through the 1842 Salon and worked for the Sévres Manufactory, including both the design of porcelain forms and the decoration.

I must confess that I love today’s picture, the Lesson of Henry IV.  Henry IV (1553 – 1610) was one of the most beloved of French kings.  He managed not to take sides during the terrible Religious Wars, using politics and politesse to ultimately save the day.  He was also, by lights of those times, quite liberal, often working for the betterment of the common man.  It is to Henry IV that we owe a key phrase of our political language when he said, “If God keeps me, I will make sure that there is no working man in my kingdom who does not have the means to have a chicken in the pot every Sunday.”  Sadly, Henry IV was murdered by a Catholic fanatic.  A statue to the monarch was erected just four years after his death.  It was destroyed during the later French Revolution, but Henry IV was the first king to be immortalized by a statue following the Revolution.  It would seem that even the French Revolution could not expunge the memory of an aristocrat so dedicated to the common good.

I think one of the reasons that Alexandre-Évariste depicted Henry IV during his school lessons is because of the truism that liberality, kindness, tolerance, courage, empathy, and good will are more often than not the products of education.  Even in our own world this is evident – a quick look at the kind of people who flock around dangerous anti-education demagogues like Rick Santorum demonstrates that a lack of proper schooling creates monsters.

I love this picture – mainly for its marriage of Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  Alexandre-Évariste digs into a remote and romantic past to show us the education of one of the great figures of French history.  Here, young Henry IV clearly astounds his professor by taking pen to parchment and recording the learnings from the large text.  The open window and the globe seem almost to add a Dutch flavor to the proceedings, as if Alexandre-Évariste were thinking of the great works of Vermeer while composing the picture.  And, again, Alexandre-Évariste shows himself to be the painter of light – see how the light on the floor and the wall where Henry writes trails the line of sun from the window.  The figure of the professor has a particular monumentality – as if Alexandre-Évariste were paying unconscious homage to Michelangelo (did he consider that Renaissance master one of his ‘teachers’?), and look at the line of calf and the modulation of the hands on Henry VI.  This is a beautiful and sensitive command of anatomy, particularly the anatomy of a child. 

Again – little things: the feather in the cap, the knot at the back of Henry’s waist, the white shirt cuff of the professor; these are the kinds of grace notes that can be hit only by the most sensitive and gifted of artists.  Not only is it a very accomplished picture, but it is very touching, as well.

More tomorrow!

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