Monday, January 27, 2014

Love and Play: A Pair of Paintings by Fragonard

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806), Blind-Man’s Buff.
about 1750–55. Oil on canvas, 46 in. x 36 in. (116.8 cm x 91.4 cm.)
Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward
Drummond Libbey, 1954.43

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806), The See-Saw.
about 1750–55. Oil on canvas, 47 in. x 37 in. (120 x 94.5 cm.) Thyssen-
Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, 1956.13

The original wardrobe malfunction might have originated more than 250 years ago, at the hands of a 20-something Frenchman named Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Fragonard was only beginning to discover his niche as a portrayer of thinly veiled eroticism when he painted an errant body part peeking out from his subject’s frilly 18th-century dress. The resulting work of art, Blind Man’s Buff, and its companion, The See-Saw, comprised a pair of paintings that must have delighted his patron with symbolic depictions of seduction.

The two works will be reunited for the first time in 25 years in a special focus exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art titled Love and Play: A Pair of Paintings by Fragonard, on view Jan. 24 – May 4, 2014.

Blind Man’s Buff, part of the Museum’s collection, and The See-Saw, on loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, will be displayed alongside two engraved copies of the paintings, a terracotta sculpture by Clodion and a small selection of French decorative arts of the period.

“They’re risqué, they’re provocative—and the artist intended these canvases to be seen together,” said Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. “So to reunite these two very important paintings by one of the most significant French artists of the 18th century is quite an exciting opportunity.”

Painted in Paris in the first years of the 1750s, they were likely commissioned by Baron Baillet de Saint-Julien and subsequently passed through the hands of private 18th-century collectors, a Parisian comte and a Rothschild. When they came onto the open market in 1954, they were finally separated.

The companion works were later brought together in temporary exhibitions held in London in 1968 and both Paris and New York in 1987 and 1988.

Fragonard (1732–1806) was one of the premier artists of the 18th-century Rococo era of French painting, along with Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and François Boucher (all represented in the Museum’s galleries). The son of a glove maker, Fragonard was born in Grasse in the south of France and came to Paris with his family as a young boy. His talent was recognized early on and, following an initial apprenticeship with Chardin at 18, he entered the studio of Boucher. Boucher’s art, both in subject matter and style, became a great influence on the younger artist.

Fragonard’s depictions of love and courtship, which in those times could have been deemed explicit, were well-received by his clientele, who were members of the French aristocracy and the royal court. Blind Man’s Buff and The See-Saw, executed with his characteristically fluid and effortless handling of paint, epitomized the hedonistic themes that attracted his patrons.

“His art really embodied the court’s penchant for indulgence, but it wasn’t intended to be controversial,” Nichols said. “There was a sexual symbolism that would have been obvious to 18th-century viewers.”

Though the paintings will appear as companion works as Fragonard intended, there will be one unalterable change: the canvases are now smaller than when they were originally painted.

“Though both are extremely well-preserved works of art, we do know that they have been cut down,” Nichols said. “We’re going to examine the original format of the paintings and help the viewer reconstruct how they were first meant to appear.”