Jean-Honoré Fragonard was one of the most brilliant and original French painters of the late eighteenth century, whose exuberant and fluid paintings portray playful and romantic subjects in a refreshing and light atmosphere.
Jean-Honore Fragonard was born in the Provencal city of Grasse on April 5, 1732, the son of a haberdasher's assistant. The family moved to Paris around 1738, and several years later he was apprenticed to a lawyer who recognized his artistic talent and urged his family to encourage him to study painting.
François Boucher took Fragonard on as an art student in about 1748, and after a few years of training, he won the Prix de Rome for the painting ‘Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols’. He continued his studies for three years under Charles-André van Loo before departing to the French Academy in Rome on September 17, 1756.
In the last few months of his schooling, Jean-Honore Fragonard met Abbé de Saint-Non, a wealthy amateur artist who befriended him. In 1760, the Abbé took Fragonard and his friend Hubert Robert on an extended tour of Italy to study Italian art, during which time they produced hundreds of sketches of the local scenery. He captured the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli in brilliant red chalk drawings and painted small cabinet-size paintings for French private collectors living in Rome. One year later, the artist’s cabinet pictures were in high demand in Paris.
In the mid 1760’s, Fragonard turned to religious and historical subjects for inspiration. He began working in the rococo style popular to French painters. Graceful women roaming about the courtyard or set amidst the loose foliage and flowers reflected the gaiety and romantic subjects of that era. ‘The Swing’ is one of Fragonard’s popular pieces from this period.
In 1769, Jean-Honoré Fragonard married Marie-Anne Gérard from Grasse, and shortly afterward, he received the accolade of fashion. His clientele during this time consisted of private collectors including Madame du Barry, the official mistress of Louis XV who commissioned the Louveciennes panels. This project consisted of four large paintings entitled ‘Progress of Love’ which would decorate her newly built Pavillon de Louveciennes.
When the Louveciennes panels were not met with much enthusiasm, Fragonard felt the need to take a step back and explore new techniques in his art. A tour through Vienna, Prague and Germany inspired drawings of picturesque Italian landscapes. Upon his return to Paris, he and his wife were joined by her fourteen year old sister Marguerite, with whom he fell passionately in love.
The French Revolution (1789-1799) eliminated the demand for artists’ work. Without the commissions of private patrons and nobility, Jean-Honore Fragonard was ruined financially. Jacques Louis David, the leading painter of the new French classical school, tried to offer advice and assistance to the artist; however, Fragonard could not adjust to the popular neoclassical style. He opted for an administrative position at the Louvre and worked there until he was ousted from his Louvre apartment in 1806 and deprived of his pension. He spent the rest of his life in obscurity, rarely painting, and died poor and alone in Paris on August 22, 1806.