Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)
The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

Louis XIV, known as the Sun King died in 1715, at the age of seventy-seven after reigning for seventy-two years.  He had outlived all his legitimate children and two of his eldest grandchildren so his crown passed to his youngest grandchild, Louis Duke of Anjou, who became Louis XV at the age of five (the same age his grandfather was when he became Louis XIV) and his kingdom was ruled by his maternal great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans as Regent of France, until Louis reached maturity in 1723.  The Duke of Orléans had a passion for beauty and cheerfulness and he tried to dismantle the godliness enforced by Louis XIV at his sumptuous home in Versailles. Following numerous wars under the previous monarch, France turned away from these imperial aspirations and instead, concentrated on more personal, and enjoyable pastimes. With this more relaxed political life and the letting-up of private morals, the change was mirrored by a new style in art, one that was intimate, decorative, and often erotic.  It was the era of Rococo.

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)
Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Members of the new royal court began to decorate their sophisticated homes in a lighter, more delicate manner. This new style which came into being around the start of the 18th century has been known since the last century as “rococo,” from the French word, rocaille, for rock and shell garden ornamentation. The rococo style emphasized pastel colours, sinuous curves, and patterns based on flowers, vines, and shells. Artists moved away from depictions of lofty grandiloquence and instead focused on the pleasures of both colour and light, and also moved away from depictions of momentous religious and historical subjects and concentrated more on informal, friendly and relaxed mythological scenes as well as  joyous views of daily life, and elegant sophisticated portraiture.  When we think about rococo art we think of Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard but today I am looking at the life and works of a lesser known rococo artist, Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)
The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

Jean-Baptiste Pillement was born in Lyon, France on May 24th 1728.  He received his first artistic training as a teenager from the French painter, Daniel Sarrabat in Lyon.  The training he received gave him an excellent foundation in the Rococo style of genre painting which had become so popular through the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher.  In 1743, aged fifteen, Pillement moved from his home town to Paris where he was taken on as a design apprentice at the Manafacture des Gobelins, a tapestry factory, which is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of the French monarchs.   In 1745 he left Paris and travelled to Spain and remained there for five years. He spent those years moving from city to city earning money sometimes as a designer other times as a painter.

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin
by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

One recurring theme depicted in his paintings was that of rugged landscapes, shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats cross fast flowing streams by way of rickety bridges, on either side of the cascading water we see lush green vegetation all of which was bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.

In 1750, after five years in Spain, the twenty-two-year-old Pillement journeyed to Lisbon where he was to remain for four years.  In 1754 Pillement left the Iberian Peninsula and travelled to London.  The favoured artistic genre of the English at that time was landscape painting and this meant that Pillement’s Rococo-style of romanticised landscape art was in much demand.  One of the popular artists at that time whose work was to influence Pillement was Nicolaes Berchem, the highly regarded and prolific Dutch Golden Age painter who painted numerous works depicting pastoral landscapes in the seventeenth century.

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem
Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Berchem was part of the second generation of “Dutch Italianate landscape” painters who had travelled to Italy to take in the romanticism of the country and who would later return home to the Netherlands with sketchbooks full of drawings of classical ruins and pastoral imagery. Like Pillement, a century later, Berchem’s works were based on the Arcadian landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain which would typically depict shepherds grazing their flocks among Classical ruins, bathed in a golden sunlit haze.

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During his sojourn in the English capital he became friends with the English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick and his wife, the dancer, Eva Maria Weigel.  Garrick had become quite wealthy through his acting and this allowed he and his wife to buy a palatial estate in Richmond-on-Thames which became known as Garrick’s Villa.  Eva Marie Weigel became an art collector and furnished the house with paintings, many of which were by Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In 1763, Pillement was once again on the move, this time leaving London and travelling to Vienna.  His reputation as a successful painter gave him the opportunity to move in royal circles and was employed at the Imperial Court of Maria Theresa and Francis I.

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In the eighteenth century, prints of designs was the foremost way of spreading information. They were often published monthly and were collected into folios or volumes, and people could order them by subscription. There was a massive demand throughout Europe, for these prints.   Pillement, whilst living in England, soon realised that the fashion there was the same as that in France, and, at the time, was the love of chinoiseries.  It was around 1764 that Pillement, according to his memoirs, had discovered a new method of printing on silk with fast colours.   Pillement’s illustrations were a blend of fanciful birds, flora & fauna, incorporating large human figures and chinoiserie.  The word, chinoiserie came from the French word Chinois, meaning “Chinese” and is a European version and simulation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the field of decorative arts.  It first became popular during the 17th century and this trend was further commercialised in the 18th century with the boom in trade with China and East Asia.   The chinoiserie style is associated with the Rococo style with its cheerfulness, its concentration on materials, and often depicts times of great pleasure and leisure time.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement's Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l'usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.
One of Jean Baptiste Pillement’s Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l’usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

These beautiful and intricate designs were used by engravers and decorators not only on porcelain and pottery, but also on textiles, wallpaper and silver. Pillement published many albums, of these illustrations, the most famous being Œùvre de fleurs, ornements, cartouches, figures et sujets chinois which was published in 1776.

After Vienna, Pillement’s next stop, in 1765, was Poland and the city of Warsaw where he once again worked for the royal court of the Polish king, Stanislaw II, who commissioned him to decorate the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the nearby Ujazdowski Castle.

Inside Le petit Trianon
Inside Le petit Trianon

Pillement was forever on the move.  He worked in Saint Petersburg, the Piedmont, Milan, Rome and Venice as well as returning to his homeland where he was employed by Marie Antoinette to furnish the Petit Trianon, a small château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles which was built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV.   Its purpose was to house Louis XV’s long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who sadly died four years before its completion.  However, all was not lost, as the Petit Trianon was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. When Louis XV died in 1774 he was succeeded by his son Louis-Auguste who became Louis XVI and when he came to the throne he gave the Petit Trianon to his wife Marie Antoinette whom he had married in 1770 when he was just fifteen years of age, the same age as his bride. In 1778 Pillement was nominated Court Painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, in which capacity he provided paintings for the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During the 1780’s Pillement was living once again on the Iberian Peninsula where he completed many of his most treasured works of art.  In Portugal, he became one of that country’s leading landscape and marine artists. He was also named Court Painter to Queen Maria I and King Pedro III, at last accepting the honour and pension that he had declined when he lived and worked in the country some thirty-five years earlier. It was during this second stay that he also gained a reputation as one of Portugal’s finest teachers of art.

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)
Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

He eventually returned to France in 1789 but instead of returning to Paris  he settled in a small town of Pézenas, in the Val d’Hérault in the Languedoc region.  In 1800, aged 72, he returned to his birthplace, Lyon, where he continued to paint.  On September 1st 1801 the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a famous decree, Decree of 14 Fructidor, the so-called Chaptal Decree, named after the famous chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who was the minister for the interior from 1800–04.  The decree offered the fifteen newly founded museums the art treasures which had been captured from “the enemies of the Republic”.  In the main, these were post-Revolution confiscations effected in France, but also included artwork which had been seized elsewhere in Europe by the Republican and, later, Napoleonic armies. In Lyon, in 1801, the founding of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon. The institution also fulfilled local aspirations, such as recalling the city’s prestigious Roman past and furnishing models for the silk industry, which was in crisis at that time.  And at the beginning of 1803, the Louvre Museum began to send a total of 110 paintings to be housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon.  Jean-Baptiste Pillement was employed at the museum to give art lessons which he continued doing for the rest of his life.

Fête Champêtre black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Fête Champêtre
black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Pillement achieved success not only as a landscape painter but was also one of the most influential decorators of the eighteenth century. His chinoiseries, arabesques and flower paintings providing elegant leitmotives for furniture makers, tapestry weavers, and particularly when he returned late in life to the south of France, he did much work for the silk industry of Lyon (Manufacture de Soie et des Indiennes), where he ended his distinguished career.

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement
River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

Jean-Baptiste Pillement died in Lyon in 1808, aged 80.  He will be remembered for his exquisite and delicate landscapes, but most of all for his engravings done after his drawings, and their influence in spreading the Rococo style and particularly the taste for chinoiserie throughout Europe.

In Maria Gordon-Smith’s 2006 book, Pillement, she commented:

“…the name Jean Pillement can evoke visions of Arcadian landscapes, luminous seascapes, and highly polished pastels and drawings. To the cognoscenti of decorative arts, Pillement is recalled as having been the most prolific and successful master of Rococo fantasy of his time. His designs were adopted by countless leading artistic manufactories, and their charm has never waned…”

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Camille-Joseph-Étienne Roqueplan

Camille-Joseph-Étienne Roqueplan
Camille-Joseph-Étienne Roqueplan

My featured artist today is the 19th century French Romantic painter and lithographer, Camille-Joseph-Étienne Roqueplan .   He was born in the small town of Mallemort which lies thirty-five kilometres south west of Avignon, but his family moved to Paris when he was still quite young.  He came from a well-to-do and cultured family and his younger brother Louis-Victor-Nestor Roqueplan went on to become a well-known writer, journalist, and co-director of the Paris Opera. Contrary to most young people who want to become artists despite opposition from their parents, Camille Roqueplan was wary about having art as his future profession despite his father’s encouragement that this should be his future path.  Camille liked to paint, but he believed art was just something to do for relaxation and should not be conceived as a future profession for he was adamant that his future lay in medicine.  His foray into studying medicine and anatomy was brief and having failed his first set of exams he went to work in the same office as his father, as a clerk in the Department of Finance.  This bureaucratic career was also short lived as he became bored and so after many career false starts he returned to painting

In February 1818, shortly after Camille’s eighteenth birthday he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he received his initial art tuition in the workshop of the French artist, Alexandre-Denis Abel de Pujol, but remained with him for just a short period before working in the studio of Antoine-Jean Gros, the French history and neo-classical painter, where he learnt to paint landscapes, marine paintings, historical subjects and genre scenes.  He used both the mediums of watercolours and oil and was taught the secrets of lithography, which at the time was a new method of printmaking.  He remained in Antoine-Jean Gros’ workshop for three years.

he Pardon Refused by Camille-Joseph-Étienjne Roqueplan (c.1829)
he Pardon Refused by Camille-Joseph-Étienjne Roqueplan (c.1829)

One of Roqueplan’s fellow students at L’ École des Beaux-Arts was the Nottingham-born, English painter Richard Parkes Bonnington, eighteen months younger than Roqueplan, who had moved to Paris when he was fourteen years of age and began studying at the  École des Beaux-Arts in 1820.  Bonnington favoured landscape painting and this no doubt influenced Roqueplan who began to produce small-scale paintings including some landscape works.  Roqueplan was also influenced by the works of the Scottish historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott and in 1824 he completed a work entitled Historical Landscape based on Scott’s novel, Quentin Durward.  Another small painting by Roqueplan, which he completed around 1829,  also featured characters from a Sir Walter Scott romantic tragedy novel, Kenilworth, in which we see the heroine Amy Robsart pleading for forgiveness from her father, Sir Hugh Robsart but he is untouched by her tearful pleadings.  This work, entitled The Pardon Refused, is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Lion in Love by Roqueplan (1836)
The Lion in Love by Roqueplan (1836)

Around 1835, Roqueplan changes his painting style from small landscape paintings to large-scale anecdotal works and one of his most famous of these can be seen at the Wallace Collection in London.  It was completed by Roqueplan in 1836, in time to be exhibited at that year’s Salon in Paris.  It is a large painting, measuring 219cms x 174cms and is entitled The Lion in Love.  The work is all about the power of love even if it is at the expense of wisdom.  I am sure many of us know how that feels!    The painting is based on a fable written by the Jean de la Fontaine, who was the most famous French writer of fables and one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century.   There are 243 of these fables, originally written in French, by the poet in the late 1600’s which have since been translated in to many different languages.   The Lion in Love is a sad tale which tells of a noble lion, which has fallen in love with a shepherdess.  His love for the girl is so strong that he  unwisely consents to her father’s demand that his teeth and claws are clipped lest they should hurt his daughter .  The lion does not see through the father’s trickery and when his teeth and claws are paired down, his defence mechanism is rendered ineffectual, enabling the father to set his dogs on the defenceless lion.  The question of who shaves down the teeth and claws of the lion is not told in the poem but in Roqueplan’s painting he depicts the act being carried out by the shepherdess herself.  Maybe Roqueplan was drawing a parallel with the biblical tale of Delilah shaving off the hair of Samson, which rendered him defenceless.  Below is an English translation of the poem by Jean De La Fontaine which I found on the Aesop’s Fables website.

THE LION IN LOVE

 

Sévigné, whose attractiveness

Serves as a model to Beauties,

You were born so beautiful,

In case you are indifferent,

Would you be enclined

To an innocent Fable’s games,

And see, without fear,

A lion  tamed by Love?

Love is a strange master.

Happy is he who experiences it

Only through tales, minus its pains!

When it is told in front of you,

If  the truth offends you,

The Fable at least can be endured:

It is bold enough

To come offer itself at your feet,

By zeal or by gratitude.

In the times when animals spoke,

Lions among others wanted

To be accepted in our circles.

Why not? since their   kins

Were worth ours back in those times,

Having courage, intelligence,

And a beautiful head, moreover.

Here is how it happened:

A Lion from highly ranking parents,

While walking through a certain pasture,

Met a Sheperdess to his liking :

He asked for her in marriage.

The father would have preferred

A son-in-law a little less scary.

To give her to him seemed very harsh;

To refuse her was not so wise;

Even a rejection might have  made it possible

That some fine morning we’d have seen

A clandestine marriage.

Furthermore anyway

The beautiful girl was meant for noble people,

-Daughter becomes easily infatuated with

A long  maned lover.

So the father openly

Not daring to dismiss the lover,

Said to him: “My daughter is delicate;

Your claws could wound her

When you’ll wish to caress her.

Allow therefore that each paw of yours

Be declawed, and that your teeth,

Be filed down at the same time.

Your kisses will be less harsh,

And for you more delicious;

Because my daughter will respond to them better,

Being without these worries.

The Lion consented,

His heart was so blinded!

Without teeth or claws here he is,

Like a dismantled room.

A few dogs were turned aloose on him:

He did not resist much.

Love, Love when thou holdest us

One can well say: “Farewell prudence.”

In 1830, on the abdication of Charles X of France, a new king was crowned.  He was Louis Philippe and it was he who decided that some of the palace rooms at Versailles should be set aside for a Museum of the History of France.  These rooms were then filled with a large collection of paintings from the likes of Philippe de Champaigne, Charles Le Brun, Jacques-Louis David, Antoine Jean Gros, Rubens and the great female artist of the time, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and one room was designated as the Galerie des Batailles (Hall of Battles) in which works depicting great French battles could be displayed.  Roqueplan contributed a work entitled  Battle of Elchingem ,which he completed in 1837, and featured a scene from the October 1805 battle between the victorious French forces under Marshal Ney and the Austrian army around the town of Elchingem in south west Bavaria

Peasants of the Béarn by Roqueplan (1846)
Peasants of the Béarn by Roqueplan (1846)

 Roqueplan’s health deteriorated in 1843 and as an aid to recovery he spent time in the foothills of the Pyrennees with its fresher and cleaner air.  He remained there for three years during which time he painted many scenes depicting mountainous landscapes and peasant life.  One such work can be found at the Wallace Collection in London with the title Peasants of the Béarn dated 1846.  Béarn is a French province in the Basse-Pyrenees and one of the geographical features of this province is the Ossau Valley.  It may be more than just a coincidence, but at the 1847 Salon, the year after the completion date given to  Peasants of the Béarn, Roqueplan exhibited a work with the title, Peasants of the Valley of Ossau.  Could these be one and the same painting?

Girl with Flowers by Roqueplan (1843)
Girl with Flowers by Roqueplan (1843)

Another painting of his which I like was painted around the same time, 1843.  It is an oval work, entitled Girl with Flowers and is now housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  It is an everyday genre piece in which we see a young girl walking home with a bunch of wild flowers that she has collected, and which are held carefully in the folds of her raised skirt.  She is young and pretty.

Girl with Flowers (detail)
Girl with Flowers (detail)

On her head is a wide-brimmed straw-coloured hat adorned with a pink flower and ribbons that seem to flutter down and fly off behind her giving us an impression of motion.  She holds on to the brim of her hat, pulling it downwards affording her more shade from the sun and maybe ensuring it does not fly from her head due to the breeze.  The hat frames her face.  She looks at us enticingly and we cannot help but fall under the spell of her young beauty.  What of course is more haunting is the sight of her left breast which has been uncovered due to lowering the neckline of her white linen blouse.

Rousseau and Mlle. Galley gathering Cherries by Rocqueplan (1851)
Rousseau and Mlle. Galley gathering Cherries by Roqueplan (1851)

My final offering is a work he completed in 1851 entitled Rousseau and Mlle. Galley gathering Cherries and is based on one of the autobiographical tales from The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau , written by the French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  This great work came in twelve volumes and recounted the first thirty-five years of his life.  In Volume IV  he recounts a tale from 1731, when he was nineteen years old, when he met and befriended a lady and her companion who were travelling through the countryside.  He had assisted them with getting their horses across a stream and then they had stopped at a hostelry and were partaking of lunch when they decided to go outside and look for some cherries and it was then that Rousseau tells of his longing for the lady:

“…After dinner, we were economical; instead of drinking the coffee we had reserved at breakfast, we kept it for an afternoon collation, with cream, and some cakes they had brought with them. To keep our appetites in play, we went into the orchard, meaning to finish our dessert with cherries. I got into a tree, throwing them down bunches, from which they returned the stones through the branches. One time, Mademoiselle Galley, holding out her apron, and drawing back her head, stood so fair, and I took such good aim, that I dropped a bunch into her bosom. On her laughing, I said to myself, “Why are not my lips cherries? how gladly would I throw them there likewise!…”

 In the painting we see Rousseau, having climbed a little way up the cherry tree, is dangling the fruit above Madamoiselle Galley.  She stands holding her apron open to catch the fruit but Rousseau has other ideas as to where the cherries should land!  The smile on her slightly flushed face is an indication that she too would like the cherries to be his lips.

Camille-Joseph-Étienne Roqueplan died in Paris in September 1855, aged 55.

 In this and my previous blogs about Gabriel Metsu I have featured paintings which are housed at the Wallace Collection in London.   If you are ever in London and want to visit an art gallery but are spoiled for choice, you must go to this one.  It is right in the centre of town, a five minute walk from the major department stores on Oxford Street.  I can assure you that you will not be disappointed with the collection.

Jean-Marc Nattier

Jean-Marc Nattier by Louis Tocqué (c.1742) Toqué was taught by Nattier in the 1720's and married Nattier's daughter Marie in 1747.
Jean-Marc Nattier by Louis Tocqué (c.1742)Toqué was taught by Nattier in the 1720’s and married Nattier’s daughter Marie in 1747. 

The career you decide on as a teenager is often a logical follow-on from what one or both your parents did or what they were interested in.  There are cases when parents are disappointed that their children don’t follow their career footsteps, no matter how much they try to cajole them.  Musicians beget musicians, lawyers, beget lawyers and of course artists beget artists.   The father, mother and godfather of the painter featured in my blog today were all artists and so one should not be surprised to find that their sons became interested in all things artistic.  Of course to be interested in art and be good at art are two completely different things but my featured painter today was one of France’s most talented 18th century historical painter and portraitist.  He was Jean-Marc Nattier. 

Nattier was born in Paris in March 1685.  He was the second son of Marc Nattier a portrait painter and Marie Nattier (née Courtois) who was a miniaturist.  His father and his godfather were his first art tutors.  His godfather was Jean Jouvenet, a history painter, who specialised in religious scenes.  When he was fifteen years of age his father arranged for him to enrol in the drawing classes at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture of Paris and soon the establishment recognised the artistic talent of  Jean-Marc for in 1700 he was awarded the Premier Prix de Dessin.

The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de' Medici to King Henry IV by Rubens (1622-1625) Part of the Marie de' Medici cycle
The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV by Rubens (1622-1625)
Part of the Marie de’ Medici cycle

Nattier’s father had a royal licence to reproduce Rubens’s famous cycle of paintings known as the History of Marie de’ Medici, which was, at that time, housed in the Le Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg, Paris.  It is now housed in the Louvre.   Before he died, he arranged for the licence to be taken over by Jean-Marc and his brother, another artist,  Jean-Baptiste Nattier.  Nattier and his brother spent much time making drawings of this cycle of paintings.  The cycle consisted of twenty four monumental allegorical paintings of the French dowager Queen by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens who began painting them in 1622 and which took him two years to complete.  It was a set of narrative paintings, commissioned by Maria de’ Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, who, on her husband’s death, took control of the country until their thirteen year old son Louis XIII reached the age of thirteen.   Twenty-one of these works tell the story of her life, her struggles and triumphs as a widow, mother and ruler.  The other three paintings were portraits of her and her parents, Francesco I de’ Medici the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Joanna, Archduchess of Austria.  It was presumably in her mind that such a set of paintings about her would immortalize her in French history. Jean-MarcNattier, over time, made a series of drawings of this cycle of paintings which were turned into engravings by the leading engravers of the time.  The drawings appeared in 1710 under the title La Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg and  proved extremely popular.  Jean-Marc Nattier’s artistic ability was now recognised. 

Portrait of Tsar Peter by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Portrait of Tsar Peter by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

Through the good auspices of his uncle, Jean Jouvenet, Jean-Marc Nattier was offered the chance to visit Rome and study at the prestigious Académie de France à Rome.  Unlike his elder brother, John-Baptiste, however, he declined the offer and instead of heading to Italy, remained in Paris to further his career.  

Catherine I of Russia by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Catherine I of Russia by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

In 1717, Nattier, at the age of thirty-two, travelled to Amsterdam where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the visiting Russian Tsar, Peter the Great and his second wife, the Tsarina, Catherine. Both portraits are housed at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Battle of Poltava by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)
Battle of Poltava by Jean-Marc Nattier (1717)

The Tsar, obviously pleased with the portraits then commissioned Nattier to produce two historical paintings depicting the 1709 Battle of Poltava and the 1708 Battle of Lesnaya, two of the major conflicts between Russia and Sweden in the Great Northern War which he completed in 1717. 

The Tsar was delighted with the history paintings and invited him to come to Russia and work at the Russian court but the Frenchman declined the offer and returned to the French capital.  Nattier remained in Paris for the rest of his life . 

Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa by Jean-Marc Nattier (1718)
Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa by Jean-Marc Nattier (1718)

Nattier’s work between 1715 and 1720 focused on historical paintings such as his Great Northern War paintings (above) and he was received into the Académie Royale as a history painter on the strength of these works and in particular one he completed in 1718 entitled Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa.   The painting is based on Book V of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,  which tells the tale of  Andromeda, who was betrothed to her uncle, Phineas, until Perseus rescued her from the sea monster, Cetus,  and in return for saving her life she agreed to marry him instead.    At their wedding celebrations Phineas and his followers burst in and attacked Perseus and the wedding guests.  Andromeda came to his aid but he was heavily outnumbered.  Perseus then unveils his ultimate weapon, the severed head of the gorgon, Medusa, that petrifies all those who look at it.  Perseus thus transforms all his attackers into statues and utters the words to Phineas:

“…You shall not suffer by the sword.  Rather I will cause you to be an enduring monument through the ages and you will always be seen in my father-in-laws palace, so that my wife may find solace in the statue of her intended…”  

Phineas tried to avert his eyes but it was too late.  His neck hardened, the tears on his cheek were turned to stone and he was turned into marble.  In Nattier’s painting we see the intruders on the left already turned to stone whilst those in the right foreground try to avert their eyes from the Medusa’s severed head which is being held aloft by Perseus.  Throughout the painting we see the bright flashes of highly polished armour.  There are also the gleaming  silver salvers and decorative pitchers which lie on the floor in the foreground that were being used for the wedding feast.  These random reflections catch our eye and have our gaze dart around the painting.  This attention-dispersing effect is known as the papillotage

Nattier’s was forced to move from historical paintings to the more lucrative genre of portraiture around 1720 when he, and numerous French citizens, lost most of their money they had invested in the government’s Mississippi Company, set up by Louis XIV’s financial adviser, the Scotsman, John Law.  The collapse of the company became known as the Mississippi Bubble.  Nattier was in a state of financial ruin and urgently needed to recoup his lost money and the most lucrative art genre was portraiture, although this form of art came low down in the academic hierarchy of genres.   Artists of the time who made money from their portraiture were frowned upon by the art establishment who considered that the portraitists had lost all artistic credibility.  Nattier was loathed to give up on his favoured genre of history painting, which he knew the art academies of 17th century Europe considered the highest intellectual achievement for an artist.   He was extremely unhappy that he was about to sell his soul for the financial gain of portraiture but “needs must”.   However to retain some artistic credibility he decided that his portraiture would revive the genre of allegorical portraiture and by depicting his sitters as characters from Greek and Roman mythology, history or biblical tales then he was not completely abandoning history painting.  Initially his portraiture clientele came from the Parisian bourgeoise but later in the 1730’s he began to work on portraits of the ladies of the Royal court and in the 1740’s he was commissioned to paint portraits of the Royal family of Louis XV.  

Henriette of France as Flora by Jean-Marc Nattier (1742)
Henriette of France as Flora by Jean-Marc Nattier (1742)

Females liked this type of portraiture as artists could then depict them in roles outside their normally constrained and often boring professions, and elevate their status to that of Goddesses.  Nattier realised that with a little help from props and artificial settings the finished painting moved a tad closer to the much vaunted and more credible history painting genre.  His finished works pleased the female courtiers as besides elevating them to the status of Goddesses he would cleverly beautify his sitters without losing their true likeness.  Examples of this allegorical portraiture can be seen in his 1742 painting entitled Henriette of France as Flora.  The painting had been commissioned by Henriette’s mother, Maria Leczinska, the wife of Louis XV.  Nattier had transposed the princess into the mythological figure of the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring, Flora. 

Marie Adelaide of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (1745)
Marie Adelaide of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (1745)

Three years later in 1745 he completed another allegorical portrait for Maria Leczinska.  This time it was a portrait of another of her daughters, Marie Adelaide, which was entitled Marie Adelaide of France as Diana.  Diana was the Roman goddess of hunting and in the painting we see Marie Adelaide sitting on the ground, one hand wrapped around her bow whilst the other hand withdraws an arrow from its quiver.  Both the paintings of Louis XV’s daughters can now be seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Portrait of Queen Marie Leszczyńska by Jean-Marc Nattier (1748)
Portrait of Queen Marie Leszczyńska by Jean-Marc Nattier (1748)

In 1748 Nattier received a commission to paint Louis XV’s wife, Maria Leszczynska, who was the daughter of the former King of Poland.  Louis and Maria’s marriage was an arranged one and fifteen year old Louis and twenty-one year old Maria met for the first time on the eve of their wedding.   It started off as a very happy marriage and the couple went on to have ten children.   There were complications with the birth of the last child, Princess Louise, in 1737 and from that time on the couples sex life was at an end and they slept in separate rooms.   It was around this juncture in their married life that Louis  began to have a series of love affairs including his famous one with Madame de Pompadour.   The portrait by Nattier of the Queen was a change of portraiture style.  This was not the usual allegorical portrait that he had been carrying out over the last twenty years, but a simple depiction of a forty-five year old married woman.  Marie had asked that she be depicted in habit de ville (day dress).   She wanted simplicity and that is exactly what Nattier gave her.  We see her seated with her left hand on top of an open bible which makes us aware of her strong religious beliefs.  She looks relaxed and at ease with herself.  She was a homely-type of person and Nattier has depicted her just so.  There is a natural quality about this work which must have pleased the queen.

Jean-Marc Nattier had married Marie-Madeleine de la Roche in 1724 and the couple went on to have four children, one of whom, Marie, married Louis Tocqué in 1747.  Tocqué who was only ten years younger than his father-in-law and had at one time been a student of his and they were colleagues at the Académie Royale.  Louis Tocqué and Jean-Marc Nattier were two of the most celebrated portraitists of the 18th century.

Self-Portrait with his Family, by Jean-Marc Nattier
Self-Portrait with his Family, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Nattier completed a family portrait of himself, his wife and their four children which depicts them well dressed and quite affluent looking.  The painting would have been from the 1730’s when Nattier had started to recover from his financial losses a decade before.  

Jean-Marc Nattier’s health deteriorated in 1762 and he was forced to stop painting.   The popularity of his work had started to wane in the last decade of his life and he died a poor man.  

Jean-Marc Nattier  died in Paris in November 1766, aged 81.

A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret

A Girl in a Kitchen by Nicolas Lancret (c.1720-30)

Today I am featuring the French painter, draughtsman and art collector, Nicolas Lancret, who was born in Paris in 1690.  To begin with, Lancret trained as an engraver but soon afterwards became an apprentice to the history and religious painter Pierre Dulin.  Dulin was later to become a professor of art at  Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris.  Throughout his early artistic training Lancret was influenced by and greatly admired the works of the Jean-Antoine Watteau the late Baroque painter and one of the leading artists in the new Rococo style of artwork.  In 1708, at the age of eighteen, Lancret enrolled at the Académie royale de peinture and in 1711 he competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome prize.  His stay at the Académie ended when he was expelled for quarrelling.    It was Lancret’s love of Watteau’s work that made him part from his tutor Dulin and serve under Claude Gillot, the French genre and decorative painter, who had Watteau as his assistant in 1703.  Once Lancret began to work in the studio of Gillot his artwork changed from the history painting he had learnt whilst with Dulin to the Rococo style with all its scenes of graceful figures at leisure in elegant garden settings similar to the works of Watteau whom Lancret met around 1712.

In 1719 he was the first painter to be accepted into the Académie Royale as a painter of fête galantes, a category that had been created by the Academy in 1717.  Fête galante, which means “courtship party”, is a French term used to describe a type of painting which first came very popular in the early eighteenth century France.  Watteau had submitted his reception piece, ‘The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera (See My Daily Art Display, February 22nd 2011)  to the Académie Royale in 1717 and the critics of the time described it as characterising une fête galante.  These fêtes galantes paintings were usually small in size and recorded the lives of stylishly dressed men and women engaged in amorous but well-mannered play in a garden or parkland surroundings.

Lancret’s art work became very popular and he received numerous commissions from wealthy patrons especially after the death of Watteau in 1721.  Frederick the Great owned more than twenty-six of his paintings but his main patron was the ruler of France, Louis XV,  who, from the 1725,  continued to buy Lancret’s work until the artist died almost twenty years later.  He was one of the most prolific and imaginative genre painters of the first half of the eighteenth century in France and he had the ability to insert lively genre images into an allegorical framework.  His portraiture work was different to many of the time as he liked to treat his portraits as genre scenes.  Lancret exhibited works regularly at the Paris Salon.

Lancret remained single for much of his life and did not marry until 1741 when he was fifty-one years of age.  He married the 18 year old grandchild of Edmé Boursault, the French dramatist and writer.  Although one may be dismayed by the age difference of the couple it is believed that Lancret decided to marry the young girl after finding her and her dying mother living in poverty in an attic room and on hearing that the daughter was soon to be compelled to enter a convent. The marriage was a short-lived as Lancret died of pneumonia in Paris in 1743, aged fifty three.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is not a fête galante work but a genre piece which I saw recently at the Wallace Collection in London.  The painting is entitled A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) which Lancret completed in the 1720’s.  It is very reminiscent of the Dutch genre paintings of the previous century.  We see before us a young woman seated in a kitchen.  The first question which comes to mind as we look at her is what is she doing?  The subtitle of the painting La chercheuse de puce, reveals all, as translated it means “the seeker out of fleas”.  Unbelievable as it may seem the girl is inspecting herself for fleas !!!   The reason for this activity was that during the eighteenth century, amongst the poorer classes, infestation in the household with fleas was quite common.  However the depiction of the girl touching her exposed breasts during her inspection was probably Lancret’s way of titillating the observer.  The girl sits before us with her corset unlaced, inspecting her body.  Kitchen scenes in poor and peasant households were popular with the Dutch art collectors but the addition of the bare-breasted girl with its erotic connotations adds a typical French flavour to the depiction.

In some ways this painting is a kind of plagiarism as it is thought that although Lancret painted the girl and the still-life on the table next to her, the interior was painted by a Dutch artist much earlier.    The erotic element of the painting is not the only “Frenchness” about the work of art.  She sits there in her French silk skirt, semi-laced corset and delicate pointed slippers and she has been added by Lancret to this Dutch seventeenth-century interior.  It is not known which Dutch artist had painted the interior.  There were many art collectors  in France who paid good money for these Dutch genre scenes.  However Lancret, the master of fêtes galantes paintings, wanted to add some colourful and picturesque feminine interest into those more dark and somber Dutch paintings and, as was the case in today’s work, he is known to have embellished works by the Dutch landscape and peasant scene painter, Herman Saftleven and the Dutch Golden Age and sill-life painter, Willem Kalf.

I will leave you to ponder over whether the original Dutch interior needed the little bit of colour and bare flesh that Nicolas Lancret has given us.

The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

The Broken Jug by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1771)

This is my second painting featuring the artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the first being on June 28th.  However today’s painting is very different in comparison to my first offering.

Greuze was born in Tournus, a Burgundian town on the banks of the River Saône in 1725, the sixth of nine children.  He came from a prosperous middle-class background and studied painting in Lyon in the late 1740’s under the successful portrait painter, Charles Grandon.   At the age of twenty-five, Greuze moved to Paris where he entered the Royal Academy as a student.  During this period he developed a style of painting which was described as Sentimental art or Sentimentality.     I believe we could define sentimentality as an emotional disposition that idealizes its object for the sake of emotional gratification and that it is inherently corrupt because it is grounded in cognitive and moral error. Sentimental art can thus be defined as art that, whether or not by design, evokes a sentimental response.

Greuze was accepted as an Associate member of the Academy after he submitted three of his paintings A Father Reading the Bible to His Family, the Blindman Deceived and The Sleeping Schoolboy.    These three works were about life amongst working class folk and were moralising pictorial stories and, in some ways, are reminiscent of the works by William Hogarth some two decades earlier.  It was Hogarth’s genre of art that depicted scenes from the lives of ordinary citizens and which were calculated to teach a moral lesson.

Greuze was pleased to have achieved admission to the prestigious Academy but he wanted more.  He wanted to be recognised as a historical painter.  From the 17th century, Art Academies of Europe had formalised a hierarchy of figurative art and the French Académie royale de peinture et de sculpturehad a central role in this listing.  According to them this was the hierarchical order, with the most prestigious at the top:

History Painting

(including narrative religious mythological and allegorical subjects)

Portrait Painting

Genre painting

 or scenes of everyday life

Landscape

Animal painting

Still Life

 

In 1789 he put forward his work, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla, as a history painting but it was rejected by the Academy as they considered him to be a “mere genre painter”.    The Academy did not consider his works fell into the category of historical paintings and this rebuff so annoyed Greuze that he refused to submit any more of his works for the Academy’s exhibitions.  The fact that the Academy downgraded his works did not in any way affect their popularity with the public who couldn’t get enough of these “sentimental” paintings and the sale of his works continued strongly.  In fact, the sales of his works were so popular that the money kept pouring in and so Greuze had no more need to exhibit his works at the Academy.

During the late eighteenth century in France, Rococo art thrived and the likes of Fragonard, Watteau and Boucher had almost taken over the French art scene.  It was all the rage with its mythological and allegorical themes in pastoral settings and its elegant and sometimes sensuous depictions of aristocratic frivolity.  At the time, this brand of light-hearted, and now and again erotic works, were much in demand with wealthy patrons.  So in some ways the French art world received a shock when Greuze’s pompously moralising rural dramas on canvas countered the frivolity of the artificial world of Rococo art.

The majority of Greuze’s later works consisted of titillating paintings of young girls.  His paintings contained thinly disguised sexual suggestions under the surface appearance of over-sentimental innocence.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today entitled The Broken Jug is a classic example of this style of art.  In the picture we see a three-quarter length portrait of a young girl.  She has blue eyes, light hair, pink cheeks, very red lips, and her dress is white. She still exudes the innocence of childhood but we need to look closer at this portrait.   How old do you think she is?  Look closely at her facial expression.  What can you read into it?  Do you think she looks serious?  Do you think there is a slight look of alarm in her eyes?  Is there a look of sadness in her expression?  What has happened?

Look at the way she is dressed.  It looks as if it was a special dress for a special occasion, look at the flowers in her hair, maybe she has just returned from a party, but why are her dress and her appearance so dishevelled?  On her arm she carries a pitcher which is broken but she has not discarded it.  She clings lovingly to it.  It must have been a prized possession of hers and maybe she hopes to be able to remedy the break.  How did it break?  Was she running away from something and tripped, breaking the pitcher, which may explain her dishevelled appearance.  Maybe her worry is based on how she is going to explain away the breaking of the pitcher to her parents and pleading that it was a simple accident and beyond her control.  Is it as simple as this?

Let me suggest another possibility to this story.   I am not convinced this is all about a broken pitcher.  Let us consider an alternative theory.  Look at her dishevelled appearance.  Look at her silk scarf adorned with a rose which has lost some of its petals.  See how the scarf has been dragged down and is now no longer wrapped around her slender neck.  Look how the top of her dress has been pulled down exposing her left breast and nipple.  Look how she struggles to gather up flowers in the folds of her dress.  Has she been involved in a struggle with a lover and the tryst has got out of hand?   Is her beloved broken pitcher just an allegory and this is not about a broken jug at all but it is about her broken hymen and the loss of her virginity and the fear of telling her parents what has happened?

Could The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze be alluding to loss of virginity or am I reading something into this painting which does not exist?

The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is one which when once seen will never be forgotten.  Not necessarily for the breathtaking art but for the unusual subject of the painting.  My featured painting to today is The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi.

The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi (1751)

Longhi was born in Venice in the latter part of 1701. His parents were Antonia and his father Alessandro Falca, who was a silversmith.  Pietro changed his surname to Longhi once he started to paint.  He studied art initially under the guidance of the painter from Verona, Antonio Balestra, and finally was accepted as an apprentice to Giuseppe Crespi the Baroque painter from Bologna.  Longhi returned to Venice when he was thirty-one years of age and married Caterina Maria Rizzi and the couple went on to have eleven children.  Sadly, and it is a common story of that era, only three of their children reached the age of maturity, one of whom, Alessandro, became a successful portraitist.

His early work featured a number of altarpieces and religious paintings and he was commissioned to carry out a number of frescos in the walls and ceilings of the Ca’Sacredo in Venice, which is now an exclusive hotel.  Later his art turned to genre scenes of contemporary life in Venice of the aristocracy and the working class.  He produced numerous works and in many instances painted many different versions of the same scene.  His type of art,  his satirical look at everyday Venetian life with its coffee-drinking, receptions and social soireeswas extremely popular..  Some of his paintings remind one of the type of paintings done by William Hogarth.  The difference between the two was that Hogarth was often brutally satirical with his paintings in which he mocked the life of English folk whereas Longhi just wanted to chronicle the everyday life of his compatriots without standing in judgment and acting as a satirical moralist.  In a number of cases his patrons, who had commissioned his work where featured in the works and maybe for that reason Longhi was careful not to offend them.   Bernard Berenson, the American Art historian, talked about Longhi’s artistic style and the comparison with Hogarth when he wrote:

“…Longhi painted for the Venetians passionate about painting, their daily lives, in all dailiness, domesticity, and quotidian mundane-ness. In the scenes regarding the hairdo and the apparel of the lady, we find the subject of gossip of the inopportune barber, chattering of the maid; in the school of dance, the amiable sound of violins. It is not tragic… but upholds a deep respect of customs, of great refinement, with an omnipresent good humor distinguishes the paintings of the Longhi from those of Hogarth, at times pitiless and loaded with omens of change..”.

Longhi became Director of the Academy of Drawing and Carving in 1763 and it was around this time that he concentrated almost all his artistic efforts in to portraiture, ably assisted by his son, Alessandro.  He died aged 83 in 1785.

The featured painting today is based on historical facts and revolves around the Carnevale di Venezia, the annual festival, held in Venice. The Carnival starts around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday.  This grand event was described by John Evelyn, the 17th century English traveller and diarist:

“…At Shrovetide all the world repair to Venice, to see the folly and madness of the Carnival; the women, men, and persons of all conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses, with extravagant music and a thousand gambols, traversing the streets from house to house, all places being then accessible and free to enter. Abroad, they fling eggs filled with sweet water, but sometimes not over-sweet. They also have a barbarous custom of hunting bulls about the streets and piazzas, which is very dangerous, the passages being generally narrow. The youth… contend in other masteries and pastimes, so that it is impossible to recount the universal madness of this place during this time of license….”

The painting which hangs in the National Gallery in London centres on the unusual spectacle of Clara the young rhinoceros, which was brought to Europe in 1741 by a Dutch sea captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, who had bought the lumbering creature.  It is believed that she was only the fifth rhinoceros to be imported from India to Europe since the days of the Roman Empire.  Clara, after extensive travels in Europe, arrived in Venice ten years later.   The female rhinoceros in Longhi’s painting, seen munching away at some hay seems somewhat docile, even depressed, as caged animals often are who suffer such a fate.

The Audience

Behind her we see the keeper of the animal and a number of spectators.  The keeper holds aloft a whip and the horn of the rhinoceros which according to historical notes, was not cut off but knocked off by Clara herself due to her continuous rubbing it against the sides of her cage.  The small audience of seven, some of whom wear their Carnival masks stand on wooden benches in an almost triangular formation.  They show no interest in the poor creature as they gaze vacuously in all different directions.  The elegant lady in the front row wearing a dark lace shawl, edged in gold is Catherine Grimani.  She stares directly out at us.  Her white-masked suitor, on her left, is her husband John Grimani and the couple were the commissioners of the painting.  Their servant stands to her right and looks straight ahead.  The man to the right of the group wearing a red cloak and has a long clay pipe in his mouth has his eyes cast downwards and seems lost in his own thoughts.  Above him, Longhi has painted a scroll-like notice which tells us all about the painting, which when translated reads:

“True Portrait of a Rinocerous  conducted in Venice  year 1751:

made for hand by  Pietro Longhi

Commissions  S of Giovanni  Grimani Servi Patrick Veneto “.

The small girl in the back row seems totally disinterested in Clara.  With the exception of the animal’s keeper brandishing the severed horn there seems no relationship with the audience and the animal on display.  It is if Longhi has merely added them to please his patrons and highlight the fact that the exhibition was at Carnival time in Venice.

One thing that I found fascinating is the lady in the upper middle of the audience dressed in the blue and white gown.  Instead of a white carnival mask she is wearing the soft black leather Moretta mask.  Moretta, means darkness, and the masks were only worn by women and were not tied around the wearer’s head but held in place by a leather button on the inside of the mask which is held in the clenched teeth of the wearer.  It has only two nearly circular openings for the eyes, restricting the lady’s breath a little, as the only airway is through the eye openings down to the nose.  Sweat also has to evaporate through the openings as well, quickly making the face hot.  Not only was that uncomfortable but it prevented the wearer from speaking.  This enforced silence especially pleased their male counterparts !

I was going to add a male-chauvinist comment, but thought better of it  !!!!!!

The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1778)

My Daily Art Display featured artist of the day is Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the French painter whose scenes of frivolity and gallantry are the finest examples of the Rococo spirit.  The Rococo style of art was characterised by lightness, grace, playfulness and intimacy and emerged out of France around the beginning of the 18th century and in the following century spread throughout Europe.  The actual word rococo is thought to have been used disapprovingly by a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, who ridiculed the taste which was in vogue in the mid-18th century.  He combined the artistic genres of rocaille, which prospered in the mid 16th century and was applied to works that depicted fancy rock-work and shell-work, and barocco (baroque) genre.

Fragonard was a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Chardin for a short time and later studied under the French pastoral painter Francois Boucher.   He went on to win the Prix de Rome in 1752 which eventually allowed him to travel to Italy where he remained between 1756 and 1761.  Whilst in Italy he developed a high admiration for the works of the artist Giambattista Tiepolo.  During his travels around the Italian countryside he made many drawings of the Italian landscape.  He was particularly taken with the Villa d’Este, which was situated at Tivoli near Rome and its Italian Renaissance gardens, parts of which were to feature in many of his future paintings.

In 1765 he became a member of the Académie in Paris with his historical picture in the Grand Manner entitled Coroesus Sacrificing himself to Save Callirhoe.   By 1767 his style had changed and his works became more erotic.  One example of this I featured in My Daily Art Display of March 29th when I gave you his beautiful work entitled The Swing, which is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.    In 1769 Fragonard married Marie-Anne Gérard who was a miniaturist and history painter.  Marie-Anne’s sister Marguerite Gérard, studied under Fragonard and was to become one of the greatest French female artists.  Fragonard and his wife had a daughter, Rosalie, two years later and she was often used as a model in her father’s paintings.  The following year his son, Alexandre-Évariste, was born and he would also go on to be a talented painter and sculptor.

After his marriage, he also painted children and family scenes. His works were now almost all painted for private commissions from his wealthy private patrons.  One such patron was Louis XV’s mistress, the beautiful Madame du Barry.   For her he painted a set of four pictures entitled The Progress of Love, and art historians believe they were his greatest masterpieces.  Sadly these paintings in his usual light-hearted Rococo style were, by 1773, the year he completed them, not looked on as being in vogue and they were returned to him.   The appetite for Rococo works had almost died and with that Fragonard’s commissions began to dry up and he tried his hand at the “in vogue” Neoclassicism style but he was never able to replicate his Rococo achievements with this new style.  Disheartened with the new turn of events, Fragonard left Paris in 1773 and went journeying around Europe visiting Austria Italy and Germany before returning home the following year.

His reliance on wealthy patrons, often members of Louis’s cour,t took a major blow with the onset of the French Revolution.  Fragonard lost their patronage and in many cases his patrons lost their lives.  As he was associated, through patronage, with the rich and noble he decided it was best to move with his family away from Paris and the bloody revolution and he went to Grasse, a commune in the south of the country where he was given shelter by his friend Alexander Maubert.  He eventually returned to Paris and through the auspices of the Neoclassical painter, Jaques-Louis David, a staunch and important supporter of the French Revolution, got Fragonard a position at the newly-opened Louvre.   David had been helped by Fragonard when he was a young and struggling painter and it had been time to return the favour.

Fragonard could never achieve the heights he reached during the Rococo period and died, virtually penniless, of a stroke in 1806 at the age of 74.

My featured painting today by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is entitled The Souvenir, which he completed in 1778.  In the painting we see a young girl carving something on the trunk of a tree.  According to the 1792 sale catalogue, the girl is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s heroine Julie whom he wrote about in his novel of the same name, although its original title was Lettres de deux amans habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes (“Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps”).  The figure of the girl which we see in profile is framed by the arching branches of the large tree.  Her hair is decorated with pink ribbons and we see her upper body silhouetted against a white-grey sky.

The young girl has just received a letter from her lover which we see lying on the ground.  So delighted with its contents and so besotted by her lover, she is carving his initials into the bark of the tree.  By her side, sitting on a pedestal, which bears the artist’s name, is her pet spaniel, a symbol of fidelity.  Her dog watches her intensely as her knife digs into the bark.  There is an enchanting innocence about the girl and we wonder how the relationship with her lover will progress.  Will their true love for each other triumph or will her innocent trust in true love end in sorrow?   Fragonard has painted her sumptuous pink and white dress with great skill.  Look how he has carefully and meticulously painted the folds of the satin material with all its different shading.

This is quite a small painting measuring a mere 25cms x 19cms but it is delightful and a thoroughly captivating work by the French master of Rococo spirit and who was once described as “the fragrant essence of the 18th century”.  The painting by Fragonard mirrors the French literary and social happening of the eighteenth century known as sensibilité, which reached its peak between 1760 and the French Revolution.  It was de rigueur for paintings to depict softer emotions of love, pity, sympathy and grief, a type of emotional sensitivity.

Although we are fully aware that Rococo art is in some ways a false impression of what life was like for the majority,  do we not sometimes want to dream about what a perfect life would have been like rather than be bombarded by reality with Social Realist art, which constantly reminds us of poverty and suffering?