Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure. Painting the Imagination

Author : Melissa Percival

1. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Portrait of the Abbé de Saint-Non, 1769
Oil on Canvas - 80 x 65 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN/ Daniel Arnaudet

Fragonard’s work can often be compared to a gauntlet thrown down to the historians of art to test their sagacity. Rare are the sheets of drawings that do not raise questions or doubts regarding their attribution, date and origin or even iconography. The « figures de fantaisie » – a term which refers to some fifteen portraits of near-identical dimensions [1], showing half-length figures dressed in costumes of a bygone era – are no doubt the most telling example (ill. 1).

Melissa Percival, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter has long been interested in the issue of portraiture during the Enlightenment [2], as shown by her studies about Madame Vigée Le Brun [3] and about Fragonard. The book being discussed here contains some ideas and even some quotes from articles she devoted to the Portrait de jeune fille en costume espagnol exhibited in the Dulwich Picture Gallery [4] and to portraits of actors [5].

Although her book Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure does not produce stunning revelations, it – fortunately – refrains from delivering over-interpretative commentaries that end up blurring the vision of Fragonard’s works rather than shedding light on them. This richly-illustrated book, which comes with a detailed index, is rather a reflection on the so-called fantasy portraits of the 18th century, their multifarious sources, and the game that this particular mise en scène implies between the artist, his model and the viewer.

First, one should remember that the information which we have at our disposal is patchy as regards the provenience of each of the works and the way in which they were perceived as they began to be rediscovered in the second half of the 19th century.
An examination into the various ways - as vague as they are varied - used to designate those types of portraits, accounts in part for the difficulties encountered when trying to identify them in former auction sales and trace back their itinerary. Attempts will always be made to recognize in the various models famous personages. The caution exercised by Melissa Percival in identifying various personalities is deserving of praise. She prefers to the definition put forward by Mary D. Sheriff – « portraits that aren’t » – that of « non portraits » [6]. Due to the lack of witness statements or archives about this series, the author rules out that they might have been commissioned as a series conceived to be hung together and decorate specific lodgings. With this in mind, the emphasis is placed on what distinguishes these portraits from one another rather than dwelling on their commonalities, each being considered in isolation, and not as part of a complete set.

Therefore, her study does not confine itself to the “fantasy figures”, strictly speaking, but also takes into account other portraits by the artist which, due to the energetic brushstroke, to the way the models were framed and to their pose and costume resemble the said figures. Her line of argument is bolstered by portraits such as that of François de Bourbon, Comte d’Enghien (Grasse, Fragonard Museum, Hélène and Jean-François Costa collection), drawings – L’intrigue à la fenêtre [7] (Waddesdon Manor, Rothschild Collection) –, or even Portrait d’enfant à la collerette(San Marino, Huntington Art Collections) usually reported to date from the years 1783-1785 while the fantasy figures are said to have been executed around 1769.

The by far richest chapter – although it overlaps with some past analyses [8] – is the one which strives to provide a comprehensive overview of the various representations of isolated half-length figures in 17th and 18th century-Europe ; this ranges from Caravaggio and his followers to Vermeer, Watteau, Reynolds and Tiepolo. The purpose here is to sketch the contours – rather loose it must be said – of a tradition to which Fragonard’s renowned portraits might relate, or that were even directly inspired by it. The paintings of Dutch artists like Rembrandt, Rubens and Hals – are extended to include tronies (« faces » in Dutch) as executed by the Flemish painters Adriaen Brouwer and Michael Sweerts, and which were recently highlighted by Lyckle de Vries and Dagmar Hirschfelder [9].

Melissa Percival also points out that many of the “costumed” portraits painted in France in the early 18th century are attributable to artists like Jean-Baptiste Santerre, Jean Raoux, Alexis Grimou and Jacques Courtin – who consorted with the Boullognes, a family of painters to whom two of Fragonard’s major patrons, the Abbé de Saint-Non and Bergeret, were related.

2. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Interior of a Ship, 1773
Pen and brown ink, black chalk - 20.5 x 32.6 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

The exploration of Nordic sources leads the author to mention Fragonard’s journey to northern countries, about which we want now to make an aside. A note (36, p. 86) tells us that the arrival of Fragonard and Bergeret in Dusseldorf on 31 August 1773 was duly reported in the local gazette. The mention of “notable persons” who accompanied them makes it possible unhesitatingly to relate to this journey a drawing by Fragonard depicting sick men in a boat, whose names written on it perfectly match those mentioned by the chronicler (ill. 2). Aside from the fact that this scene had up to now been considered as dating from the second Italian journey of the artist [10], this small discovery is of great value since Fragonard’s visit to Dusseldorf had only been alluded to by Bergeret in the narrative of his journey through Italy, a few months later [11].

After having set up the formal context within which the fantasy figures appear, Melissa Percival tries to better identify their status. How much room is left to the imaginary with regard to those figures presented as pastiches ? Is resemblance so essential since these models are costumed ? Shouldn’t this series be viewed as caprices or emblematic portraits of military figures, actors, musicians and artists ?

Although of interest, the numerous quotations by authors and reviewers concerning the various portrait techniques, like the semantic analysis of the terms used to qualify the works of Fragonard, leave us somewhat unsatisfied. However one tries to sidestep the issue of the models’ identity, this keeps cropping up unfailingly, as does the question about the individual(s) who commissioned the paintings.

3. French school, 18th century, probably
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Eighteen sketches of portraits, thirteen of them related
to well known paintings by Fragonard

Pen and brown ink, black chalk - 24 x 34.5 cm (on sight)
Private Collection
Photo : M. A. Dupuy-Vachey

4. French school, 18th century, probably
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Eighteen sketches of portraits, thirteen of them related
to well known paintings by Fragonard
, detail
Pen and brown ink, black chalk - 24 x 34.5 cm (on sight)
Private Collection
Photo : M. A. Dupuy-Vachey

We had the good fortune of discovering a drawing on the eve of a public auction sale held at Paris [12],which provides many an answer while raising new ones (ill. 3). This sheet shows eighteen small portraits sketched in a refreshing and lively style which suggests they might have been drawn by Fragonard himself [13]. Among the fourteen half-length figures, one recognizes easily eleven of the fantasy figures known to date as well as another portrait by Fragonard, very rarely tied to this series. Four full-length portraits of figures are also featured on this sheet, including the Cavalier vêtu à l’espagnole assis près d’une fontaine (Barcelona, Museo de Arte de Cataluna).

But even more extraordinary are the captions that accompany nearly all of the sketches that serve to identify the characters being depicted. One reads « Saint-Non » (ill. 4) and « La Bretèche » under the portraits which have been described as such until now (Paris, Louvre Museum). However, names that are far less illustrious than those of « la Guimard » and « Diderot » caption the portraits that are supposed to represent them (Louvre Museum).

This exciting sheet, which contains many other surprises, requires a painstaking and attentive study, which we have begun prior to publication. In addition to ascertaining the identity of each model, we will strive to understand why these figures were gathered onto one single sheet, and to investigate the nature of the bonds, if any, that unite these characters.

Are we dealing with pictures that Fragonard hung in his home, as was suggested by Pierre Rosenberg, who relied on the testimony of the artist’s grandson [14] ? Or were these portraits made for one of those celebrated meeting of amateurs and leisured classes, which is a line of enquiry that we began to pursue [15] and which Melissa Percival possibly rejected too hastily ? As we understand, Fragonard’s fantasy figures will continue to astonish and give rise to more commentary.

Melissa Percival, Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure. Painting the Imagination, Farnham (Surrey) Ashgate Publishing 2012, 260 pages, 28 pl. couleurs ; 88 repr. noir et blanc. ISBN 978-1-4094-0137-7.

Version française

Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey, vendredi 20 juillet 2012


[1] Including eight owned by the Louvre Museum. Let’s us point out that the portrait of the Duc de Beuvron has not been kept in the Louvre storerooms as Melissa Percival seems to think (note 14, p. 44) but was given to the Museum with life interest, that means this painting is still in the home of its owner.

[2] See her thesis published in 1999 : The Appearance of Character : Physiognomy and Facial Expression in Eighteenth-Century France, Leeds, Modern Humanities Research association, vol. 4.

[3] « The expressive heads of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun », Gazette des Beaux-Arts, November 2001, p. 203-213 ; « Sentimental Poses in the ‘Souvenirs’ of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun », French Studies, vol. 57, no. 2, 2003, p. 149-165.

[4] “Fragonard and Pastiche : The Case of the Girl in Spanish Costume at Dulwich” in Enlightenment and Tradition ; Women’s Studies ; Montesquieu, Voltaire Foundation, 2007, p. 47-64.

[5] « The Image of the ’Actor’ : Fictional Portraits and Blurred Identities in French Painting », in C. Ionescu, R. Schellenberg, Word and Image in the long Eighteenth Century, Cambridge : Cambridge Scholars’ Publishing, 2008, p. 190-209.

[6] p. 34 : « I want to approach the fantasy figures from the opposite direction to Scheriff : she sees the works as ”portraits that aren’t” ; conversely, I see them as ”non-portraits” ». Mary D. Sheriff, “Invention, Resemblance, and Fragonard’s Portraits de Fantaisie”, Art Bulletin, March 1987, p. 77-87, here, p. 81.

[7] A comparison with the painting of the same subject would have been more relevant (J. P. Cuzin, Fragonard, Vie et œuvre, 1987, n° 214 ; P. Rosenberg, Tout l’œuvre peint de Fragonard, 1989, n° 322).

[8] J. P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Origenes e influencias. De Rembrandt al siglo XXI, cat. exp. Barcelone, 2006 ; J. P. Cuzin, D. Salmon, Fragonard / Regards croisés, Paris, 2007.

[9] L. de Vries, « Tronies and Other Single-Figured Netherlandish Paintings », Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 8, 1989, p. 185-202 ; D. Hirschfelder, Tronie und Portrait in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 2008.

[10] P. Rosenberg, Fragonard, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Galeries-Nationale du Grand-Palais, New York, Metropolitan Museum, 1987-1988, p. 365, fig. 2.

[11] Sophie Raux, « Le voyage de Fragonard et Bergeret en Flandre et Hollande durant l’été 1773 », Revue de l’Art, n° 156, 2007, p. 11-28.

[12] Hôtel Drouot, 1st June 2012, Room 14, auction without a catalogue.

[13] Our caution is easy to understand since the drawing was framed under glass when we discovered and photographed it at Drouot. We have high hopes that the buyer, who also recognized the value of the drawing, will allow us to examine it more closely.

[14] P. Rosenberg, Fragonard, cat. exp. Paris, Galeries-Nationale du Grand-Palais, New York, Metropolitan Museum, 1987-1988, p. 256-257.

[15] M.-A. Dupuy-Vachey, Fragonard, cat. exp. Paris, musée Jacquemart-André, 2007, p. 112-117, 156-157.

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