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Jean-Honoré Fragonard(Grasse1732 - Paris1806)

The last great painter of the French Rococo. Despite early successes in the Grand Manner he chose instead to paint on a smaller scale and in a highly personal and poetic idiom, which moved during his career from recollections of Watteau and Boucher to prefigurations of Romanticism. Between 1746 and 1752 he trained first with Chardin and then with Boucher, before winning the Prix de Rome. In 1756 he went to Rome and it was Italian artists such as Barocci, Pietro da Cortona, Solimena, and Tiepolo who made the greatest impression on him. Falling in with the landscape painter Hubert Robert and the dilettante Abbé de Saint-Non he also discovered the beauties of the Roman Campagna and above all the splendours of the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli. These he depicted in a superb series of chalk drawings (examples in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Besançon).

Fragonard's romantic vision of an ebullient, resurgent, and benign nature breaking out of the bounds made for it by man recurs throughout his work, most notably perhaps in his famous painting The Fête at Saint-Cloud (c.1775; Paris, Banque de France), which completely refreshed the theme of the fête galante established 60 years earlier by Watteau. In 1761 Fragonard returned to Paris, where he exhibited at the Salon to universal praise the large history painting Corésus and Callirhoé (Paris, Louvre). An official career seemed assured, but he preferred to follow his own inclinations and to paint landscapes, gallant genre scenes, and fantasy portraits for a sympathetic coterie of wealthy private clients. The latent eroticism of his subjects found a perfect counterpart in his virtuosic brushwork. Whether in portraits, such as that of Diderot (1769; Paris, Louvre), in fêtes galantes, such as The Swing (1769; London, Wallace Collection), or in out-and-out erotica, such as The Useless Resistance (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), the prime impression is one of barely contained, joyful energy.

The masterpiece of Fragonard's career is the series of four large canvases called The Progress of Love (1771–3; New York, Frick Collection), which he painted to decorate Mme du Barry's house at Louveciennes. These were never installed, since the royal mistress rejected them in favour of inferior but chic neoclassical substitutes by Vien. Fragonard continued to paint, undismayed, for his old clients, experimenting with landscapes in the Dutch style influenced by Berchem and Cuyp, with genre scenes with carefully finished enamel-like surfaces that recall Boilly, and with romantic allegorical subjects anticipating Prud'hon. But the rejection of his Rococo fantasy for Louveciennes in favour of Vien's Neoclassicism was an intimation of the ruin of his career during the Revolution. His style and subjects came to seem wildly inappropriate and his patrons melted away. Although thanks to David's protection he held some posts in the new artistic administration and continued to paint, his career never recovered and he died virtually forgotten.