Spotlight Artist: Rococo - Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Les Hasards Heureux de L'Escarpolette (“The Swing”), Oil on canvas, 1767.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard - 5 April 1732[2][3] – 22 August 1806) was a French painter and printmaker whose late Rococo manner was distinguished by remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism. One of the most prolific artists active in the last decades of the Ancien Régime, Fragonard produced more than 550 paintings (not counting drawings and etchings), of which only five are dated. Among his most popular works are genre paintings conveying an atmosphere of intimacy and veiled eroticism.


As charming and witty as his paintings, Jean-Honoré Fragonard was one of the most prolific artists of his time, producing more than 550 works during his career.

Serving as an apprentice to Chardin and Boucher, two of the premier Rococo artists he won the Prix de Rome and attended the French Academy. Fragonard's work came with a high pedigree and prestige and as one of the last artists of the Rococo, his name is almost synonymous with this frivolous, erotic, and decadent movement.

Reputedly one of the most prolific painters of the 18th century, if not of all time, Fragonard had a feverish output of varied subject matter. From portraits to scenes of pastoral, erotic, or domestic appeal he covered a wide range of themes.

Fragonard's work is easily recognizable due to the lightness and frivolity of the subject matter, the deft touch of the brushwork, and the soft, carefree lighting schemes.

Fragonard was a product of the later stages of the Rococo era, a time characterized by hedonistic freedom and a pursuit of all things aesthetically pleasing. The Rococo era originated from the French decorative style Racaille meaning 'decorative shell and rock work'.

It primarily stemmed from the architecture and furniture style that was popular amongst the bourgeois and new rising wealthy class in France who wanted works that reinforced their wealth and pleasure in all their beauty and splendor.

The Palace of Versailles was the ideal in decadent Rococo architecture, informed by ideas of the French Enlightenment, before the French Revolution came about.

A master of the domestic scene, the pastoral landscape and tongue-in-cheek eroticism of the boudoir painting, Fragonard had his share of admirers and wielded a strong influence over future masters of the art world, particularly the Impressionists.

Although for a time after the Revolution Fragonard disappeared from the history of art, his wittily airy style cropped up again years later with a new legion of imitators and by the end of the 19th century there was a rediscovery of Fragonard and other Rococo artists.

Early Years:

Jean-Honoré Fragonard led a full and charmed life. Moving from the South of France to Paris at a young age, his drawing skills were noticed by early employers as well as the Rococo painters Chardin and Boucher, both of whom he worked under as an apprentice.

After winning the Prix de Rome, Fragonard spent some years in Italy at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Returning to Paris, he was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1765 and made a moderate name for himself with scenic paintings based on his Italian landscape drawings, created from idealized pastoral subject matter.

Intermediate Years:

Between the years of 1765-1770 Fragonard really made a name for himself amongst the aristocratic set, with his fanciful erotic portraits and lighthearted sexual scenes such as The Swing, possibly his most famous work.

Advanced Years:

Married in 1773, Fragonard's paintings focused more on domestic themes, particularly after the birth of his daughter Rosalie, who became one of his favorite models.

In the turbulent bloodbath of the French Revolution in 1789, Fragonard's major client base was wiped out under the merciless blade of the guillotine. He eventually moved back to Paris and died in relative obscurity in 1806 at the age of 74.

Jean-Honore Fragonard Style and Technique

Frivolous, colorful and gay, the works of Jean-Honoré Fragonard float into a spectator's sensory consciousness like pastel confections straight from a Parisian bakery on a spring day.

As one of the leaders of the Rococo movement, Fragonard's style of painting exemplifies all that was praised or criticized about this irreverent era, before the violent reform of the French Revolution.

Defining Characteristics:

Typical Subject Matter:

While Fragonard began his career in the Academy, he stuck to traditional subjects such as historical events or landscapes, with The Tivoli gardens proving particularly inspirational.

In later years he turned to the eroticism that would be his bread and butter with the decadent aristocracy. Exemplified in The Swing (see above), with its up-skirt action and overtly sexual ease of motion, Fragonard would pursue this theme for several years.

Though his subject matter tended to be rather erotic, his touch was light enough to keep the work from hitting a vulgar note.

After his marriage in 1769, Fragonard toned down the brazen sexuality of his earlier works to focus on scenes of domestic bliss, hearth, home and garden.

Figure Studies:

Clearly influenced by Rubens, Fragonard preferred a plump, healthy physique in his treatment of figures. When depicting aristocrats, a round figure was considered a sign of health and wealth.

Both Fragonard's men and women alike sported pale skin with rosy highlights, slender fingers and toes, and upswept messy hairdos that gave everyone the appearance of just rolling out of (if not still in) bed.

Fluid Brushwork:

The artist also seemed to take a cue from Rubens with his loose brushwork, reputedly being one of the swiftest painters that ever lived. By keeping the strokes fluid, Fragonard was able to capture the transient frivolity of the times, in which the political and social climate was constantly changing, along with the superficial fads and fashions of the era.

Candy-coated color Palette:

To match the lighthearted subject matter of Fragonard's compositions, the color palette is full of pastels; soft pinks, yellows and greens dominate both the figures themselves and the background, mostly wooded scenes.

Pastoral Lighting:

Particularly in Fragonard's outdoor scenes, he utilizes a soft, almost nostalgic lighting scheme that blurs the edges of the figures and softens the overall scheme. A silvery or golden tonality was often used, giving the picture an almost mythological air.

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Essential Questions

  • Fragonard's The Swing reflects which qualities that characterized the French aristocracy in the years before the Revolution?

  • Describe what is happening in this painting? What is the implied meaning of this work?

  • Describe the visual characteristics of this painting. Thinking back to Baroque art, (Caravaggio) how is this work different?


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