New England may be in the grip of a frigid January, but the heat was on at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., thanks to "Consuming Passion: Fragonard’s Allegories of Love," a beautiful, small exhibition featuring a group of paintings (and related drawings and prints) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Fragonard’s name evokes a light-hearted world peopled with pink-and-white almond-paste lovers cavorting amid lush, mint-green shrubbery or freshly laundered bedding, executed with a freshly laden, creamy brush. This bravura style (if not subject) is amply represented in the show with Fragonard’s "Fantasy Portrait" of The Warrior, his stern, craggy swagger leavened by a luxurious flourish of yellow and salmon jacket and cape. Yet there is more to Fragonard than these delightfully confectionary canvases. In the "Allegories" (all executed rather late in his career, in the early-mid 1780s), the former pupil of François Boucher now takes Correggio as his master, his warmly honeyed palette and fine manner reflecting the influence of the Renaissance master, anticipating both the refined elegance of neo-classicism and the melting sensuality of Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and Anne-Louis Girodet. Fragonard’s "Allegories" represent a dramatic shift in 18th-century France’s attitude to love and a new freedom of passionate expression. Influenced by popular literature, theater and music of the 1770s and 1780s, French society embraced emotionalism in a prescient manifestation of the emotions-are-good-things-let-it-all-hang-out personal therapies of the 1970s. The Invocation of Love, the first of the allegories, is represented by two oil sketches (one from a New York private collection and the other from the Louvre) and a ravishing brown-wash drawing from the Cleveland Museum. Depicting the romantic pleas of a young woman before a statue of Cupid, the subject had been treated a decade earlier by both Louis Lagrenée and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, their protagonists meek and prayerful. In contrast, Fragonard’s woman hurls herself at the statue’s plinth in billowing hysteria, reflecting the mood of a song by the artist’s patron, Jean-Benjamin Delaborde, L’Amour Vainqueur de la Raison ("Love, Conqueror of Reason"), which features the lyrics "the cruel poison of reason no longer freezes my soul -- I surrender it to you!" Fragonard seems to have been theatrically inspired in the second of the allegories, The Fountain of Love, both by another song by Delaborde and the finale to Jean-Baptiste Lully’s popular opera, Roland. Fragonard’s The Fountain depicts two lovers, blanketed by evening clouds, sprinting towards a golden goblet proffered by a putto beside an overflowing marble basin. Unlike the despair of the Invocation, Fragonard here shows lovers united in excited anticipation of quenching their thirst in a union both carnal and spiritual. Previously known through a finely executed canvas in the Wallace Collection and an oil sketch in a private collection, the first finished version surfaced at Christie’s New York in January 1999, selling to the J. Paul Getty Museum (via dealer Simon Dickinson) for $2.2 million.
A celebration of the delights of sexual pleasure -- and a literal "de-flowering" -- are the subjects of the final allegory, The Sacrifice of the Rose. Observed by a chorus of hovering putti, a gauze-clad maiden is tenderly brought to a marble altar by a curly-haired, adolescent and unusually long-winged Cupid, who sets her rose aflame on the altar while she shivers in an orgasmic swoon. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this was the most popular of Fragonard’s "Allegories of Love," and was replicated in multiple versions by the painter and in large engravings by others.
All four of the painted versions of The Sacrifice are here shown (Resnick Collection, Beverly Hills, Museo National, Buenos Aries and two French private collections), accompanied by several drawings, the most grandiose being a brown-wash drawing from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In the culmination of the group (from a French private collection), Cupid supports a limp and unconscious maiden in an inverted "Lamentation," perhaps an illustration of a French phrase for orgasm -- "le petit mal," or "a little death."After closing at the Clark on Jan. 25, 2008, "Fragonard’s Allegories of Love" (accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Andrei Molotiu) moves to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, where it can be savored Feb. 12-May 4, 2008.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.