Friday, August 10, 2012

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard Part IV: Don Juan and the Statue of the Commander

I had thought of ending the week with another example of the Neoclassicism of Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1780-1850), but when I came upon this, I could not resist.

My readers are doubtless familiar with the story of Don Juan, the well-known libertine.  There are countless versions of the story, from Moliere and Corneille to Mozart and Byron.  The painter Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863) was particularly taken with Mozart’s opera, writing “What a masterpiece of romanticism!  And that in 1785!  … the entry of the specter will always strike a man of imagination.”

Delacroix was writing of the finale, where the ghost of one of the Don’s victims comes to escort the libertine to hell.  This picture looks so unlike most of Alexandre-Évariste’s oeuvre that I cannot but help but think it had some special significance for the artist.  It’s a little picture, no more than 16x13, and hardly on the scale of his deliberately executed Neoclassical masterpieces.  The brush strokes are clearly visible, and it is painted with a loose vitality that has more in common with the Impressionism that was still decades away than the Neoclassical ideal it would eventually shun.

Don Juan here is clearly heroic: with his athletic stance, burning torch and pointed beard and mustaches, he looks more like a figure from a swashbuckling novel than a dissipated roué.  His torch illuminates two ghostly female figures … other victims, or fellow neighbors in hell?  In most of the artist’s pictures, the figure of the Commander would be depicted in finicky detail, each chink and join of armor would be visible, along with showy touches, such as light reflected upon the metal.  Not here – the ghostly figure is suggested by some thickly painted brush strokes, the face no more than a few well-placed shadows. 

That this moment in the Don Juan story held some kind of import for Alexandre-Évariste is evident – he painted it more than once.  Why, I wonder?  It does not take an armchair Freud to see that the Commander is clearly a father figure.  Did Alexandre-Évariste have regrets about the way he treated his father?  Not only did he burn Papa Fragonard’s drawings, but he seems to have sat idly by while the old man was destitute (living by the good graces of another Neoclassicist, David.)  I can’t help but think that this picture is clearly tied to the artist’s psyche.  He paints Don Juan handsome and athletic – certainly the way that most of us see ourselves, despite what our mirrors tell us.  But this heroic figure is still undone by the physical, patriarchal figure of his past sins.  It does not seem to stretch the imagination too much to think that the events may be operatic, but the thoughts are autobiographical. 

If the picture was prophetic – that there is a hell and poor Alexandre-Évariste is indeed roasting marshmallows with other artistic villains like Cellini and Caravaggio – one can hope that he still has access to paint and canvas.  Work like this would merit a trip to the lower regions, if only for a visit.

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