Alexandre Fragonard was the product of an extremely rich artistic background; he was the son of the great rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the pupil of Jacques-Louis David, and the exact contemporary of J.-A.-D. Ingres. All these influences contributed to his artistic versatility and mastery as well as to the eclipse that his reputation suffered by comparison, and which is only recently being rectified. (1) During his lifetime, from his beginnings as a child prodigy in the 1790’s until his death in the middle of the nineteenth century, Fragonard was a prolific and well-regarded artist. His accomplishments spanned a remarkable range of artistic endeavors, including easel and large decorative painting, sculpture, architecture, (2) drawing, book illustration, (3) and designs for prints, costumes, (4) and Sèvres porcelain.
Fragonard became a pupil of J.-L. David at the Academy’s Ecole des Elèves Protégés when he was only twelve and living with his parents and his aunt, the painter Marguerite Gérard, in the Louvre. In 1793, at the age of thirteen, Fragonard is first listed in the livret of the Paris Salon as an exhibitor. Fragonard’s works of the 1790s were mainly drawings of revolutionary republican subjects in a neoclassical style, many of which were engraved. (5) These works show a clear renunciation of his father’s rococo style, then considered frivolous and a symbol of the ancien régime, in favor of the pared-down neoclassicism of his master. Later in his career, however, Fragonard assimilated many of the painterly techniques exemplified in his father’s work. By the first decade of the nineteenth century Fragonard was receiving important Napoleonic commissions such as designs for the Colonne de la campagne de Pologne. Although Fragonard did not send works to the Salon between 1812 and 1819 he was well recognized at the time and in 1815 received the decoration of the Legion of Honor.
The rapidly changing political regimes of the early nineteenth century caused Fragonard’s work on several occasions to be destroyed or left incomplete. Under Napoleon he designed a sculptured frontal for the Chamber of Deputies (Palais Bourbon) which was replaced during the July Monarchy. Designs for the same building commissioned under the Restoration were aborted after the July Revolution of 1830. During the restoration, when he really came of age, Fragonard saw continued success as he changed his subject matter to suit current tastes. In 1819, already an accomplished artist, he ventured into the newly popular territory of historical genre painting. This change was well noted in contemporary criticism. Themes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, recently reintroduced into fashion by the troubadour painters dominated Fragonard’s painting for the rest of his life. His style, however, with its rich palette, painterly flourish, dramatic gesture and light effects, was very different from that of the troubadour painters, and closer to the next generation of Romantic artists associated with Delacroix -- Colin and Bonington.
During the Restoration and July Monarchy Fragonard received important commissions for painted decorations for the Louvre (François I armé chevalier par Bayard, François I reçoit les tableaux rapportés d’Italie par le Primatice; Les Sciences et les Beaux-Arts rendent hommage à leurs dieux protecteurs), Versailles (Bataille de Marignan), and numerous churches including Strasbourg Cathedral, the Church of Ste. Geneviève, and Saint-Etienne-du-Mont. He continued to exhibit easel paintings though the 1842 Salon.
As he often did, Fragonard turned to a masterpiece of French dramatic literature for the subject of this painting -- Corneille’s Le Cid. It is a tale of the eleventh-century crusade to liberate Spain from Moorish domination. King Alfonso of Castille carried out his Christian reconquest with the aid of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar -- El Cid (meaning lord or master to Moslems). The story had been passed down in the form of ballads and had also been dramatized by the Spanish playwright, Guillén de Castro. Corneille’s Cid was published in 1636.
Just prior to the scene depicted here Rodrigo’s father don Diego has been gravely insulted. Don Diego asks his son to avenge him with the words “Rodrigue, as-tu coeur?”, to which he replies “Tout autre que mon père l’éprouverait sur l’heure.” This moment is represented by the figure of don Diego with his hand over his son’s heart, and Rodrigo in a flamboyantly defiant stance. This is a crucial moment for the development of the play’s plot because the Cid is about to learn that the man he must kill to avenge his father is Don Gomez, the father of his betrothed. His choice between love and honor shapes the play.
Fragonard has been called, along with Delacroix, one of the best “metteurs en scène” (stagers) of his time. (6) Fragonard’s familiarity with the theater, as a designer of costumes for the opera, clearly influenced his approach to this picture. The lavishly-costumed figures are set on the stage-like platform of an outdoor terrace. Fragonard’s training in the studio of David would have taught him the use of strong profile forms and broad rhetorical gesture, while the brilliant color and painterly brushwork are the legacy of his father’s style. Unlike his “troubadour” predecessors, Fragonard’s is not a miniaturist technique, but one of dramatic scale and gesture that belies the small size of his canvases.
1) Recent writings on Alexandre Fragonard include publication of 2 albums of drawings at Grasse - G. Vindry, Revue du Louvre, 1974; entries in the Age of Revolution catalogue; Marie-Claude Chaudonneret, “Le Concours de 1830 pour la Chambre des Deputés,” Revue du Louvre, v. 37, no. 2, 1987, pp. 128-35; Alexandre Ananoff, L’Oeil, v. 344, March 1984, pp. 70-5; and Paul Jeromack, “Fragonard: the son also rises,” Connoisseur, v. 221, Fall 1992, p. 110.
2) He designed a fountain in the Carmelite Market (destroyed) and an obelisk on the Pont-Neuf, a Napoleonic project which was not completed.
3) Fragonard did a great many illustrations for Baron Taylor’s 19 volume Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France, Paris 1820-78.
4) He designed costumes for the Quadrille de Marie Stuart given by the Duchess de Berry in 1819 (Wright, The Influence of the Historical Novels of Sir Walter Scott on the Changing Nature of French History Painting, p. 21). He also designed costumes for the opera.
5) For example Le Triomphe de la liberté engraved by Copia, La Vérité (Musee Fragonard, Grasse), and L’Egalité, allégorie (Musee Fragonard, Grasse).
6) Georges Vindry, Les peintres de la famille de Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Marguerite Gérard, Alexandre Fragonard, Théophile Fragonard. Exhibition catalogue, Grasse, Villa-Musée Fragonard, 1988.