54 x 68 cm. (54 x 68 in.)
Oil on canvas
• Del Gallo Roccagiovine Collection, France and Rome.
• Sale Christie’s New York, June 8th, 2011, lot 62.
Fragonard arrived in Rome on December 22nd, 1756, accompanied by two of his fellow students at the Ecole Royale des élèves protégés, the painter Charles Monnet and the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Dhuez. Fragonard was the young artist “with brilliant natural aptitude,” Carle Van Loo’s pet student, François Boucher’s protégé, laureate of the Grand prix in painting of the Royal Academy, which he won in 1752 with Jeroboam Sacrificing to Idols, and painter of the monumental Psyche Showing her Sisters Cupid’s Presents which was exhibited in the King’s Apartments in Versailles in 1754 with universal admiration (London, National Gallery, inv. NG 6445). Yet, as for many of the students, the confrontation with the great Italian masters was both dazzling and terrifying, and plunged him into uncertainty and doubt. It took Fragonard three years to overcome the crisis and progressively forge his own style which brought him glory.
Paralyzed at the beginning of his Roman sojourn, the artist freed himself by copying works by the masters recommended by Natoire, Director of the French Academy in Rome, but also by painting a lot. Very few works survive from this production. Among the canvases datable with certitude to the Italian years, many are of scenes of Roman life captured with a lively accurate brush. Already, in the crowd of the Eternal City’s inhabitants, Fragonard’s eye fixed mainly on the female form and its gracious movements. He peopled his pictures with washerwomen rinsing sheets in fountains, scrubbing clothing near the wash houses, and boiling laundry in the vaulted steam-filled bleaching houses. These laundry scenes are not in the least social criticism, but a pleasant narrative doubling as an exercise in pure painting. Rapidly sketched, these young women with bare feet and arms, their skirts raised, go about their occupations in undefined spaces encumbered with columns, stairs, tubs, laundry, and young children whom their mothers can not abandon. The steamy shadows alternate with strokes of light which flash on the whiteness of a sheet, a corsage, or a complexion.
If our canvas shares the same Rembrandtesque conception of light with some of the most successful and beautiful works in this group - The Washerwomen in Saint Louis, The Happy Mother in private hands (62 x74 cm. / 24 7/16 x 29 1/8 in., see P. Rosenberg, Fragonard, exh. cat. 1987, no. 23), and The Washerwomen in Rouen, it resolutely stands out by its stripped composition and greater finish. A comparable size to the other works, our painting avoids the indistinct bustle of figures which are limited to three here and are proportionately much larger: the young kneeling woman near a laundry-filled basin, her companion leaning over a wash tub to pack the load, and a small child seated on a sort of small terrace swinging his legs in the air. The space is not very deep and the action concentrated in the foreground, whereas in the other compositions the scene is vast. Furthermore, although the brushstroke is always broad and agile, the details are defined much better: the wood planks of the palisade that stands out against the blue sky, the stoneware jug, and little round glass jar set on high, the wicker baskets, the logs under the washtub, the stones of the arch. The same is true of the young washerwoman’s delicately modeled figure in the center. Her gracious face with a fine nose, drawn out eyes, and pointed chin evoke Natoire more than Boucher. She is, nonetheless, no more characterized than the young women in the Saint Louis or Rouen paintings.
The narrow scene, attention to details, and dull brownish color range makes our picture comparable to two slightly smaller canvases from about 1759 in Rome, Meal Preparation, conserved in Moscow and Young Girl Drawing Water from a Fountain (The Turkeys), sold recently in Paris (48 x 60 cm. / 18 7/8 x 23 5/8 in.). The young washerwoman’s face also is reminiscent of that of the young mother in another Roman work by Fragonard, Hide-and-Seek, or Mother Watching Over her Children (Current location unknown, 49.5 x 62.5 cm. / 19 ½ x 24 5/8 in. see Cuzin 1987, no. 63 and Rosenberg 1989, no. 73.)
Looking at our work brings to mind Natoire’s disconcerted observation as school director when faced with the young painter’s erring during his first years there: “Fragonard, with his natural aptitude, has a surprising facility to change parties from one moment to the next, which makes him function in an uneven manner,” (Natoire to the Academicians, August 30th, 1758). As well as the answer from Paris after the receipt of a “academic figure of a man” in August 1759: “The pains taken are visible and one no longer discovers the happy ease, nor this facility with the brush which was perhaps carried to an excess but which nonetheless must not be entirely lost with corrections. His color doesn’t present any of those fresh shades, chanced on by enthusiasm […] All is blended, everything is finished; it is time that Mr. Fragonard takes confidence in his talents and, working a little less boldly, finds that initial flame and that happy facility which he had.”
His masters’ reaction seems severe and unjust, but reflects Fragonard’s quests well in his stupefaction and disorientation before the profusion of masterpieces and infinite manners and styles. Our canvas testifies to the artist’s doubts, not only in his imposed student works, but also in his deliberately personal creations, and should be situated among his most finished, more immediately “Fragonardesque” works datable to about 1760. With the central figure illuminated by an improbable streak of sunshine similar to the glare of a projector, and the pure colors of the washerwoman’s clothes in strong contrast to the surrounding earthen browns, our work testifies to how far the artist has come since the Ecole des Elèves Protégés and the first successes marked by Boucher. Here, Fragonard reveals himself as an attentive observer of the bamboccianti and Dutch painters of reality, such as Thomas Wijck and Nicolas Berchem, and thus less anecdotal and darker than usual. Nonetheless, the accuracy and sincerity which gave charm to Fragonard’s genre scenes are still here. His alert hand can be recognized in the secondary figures such as the little chubby baby, a participant in many of the artist’s compositions.
Jean-Pierre CUZIN, Jean Honoré Fragonard, vie et œuvre,Freiburg, Paris, Office du Livre, 1987, p. 271, no 61.
Pierre ROSENBERG, Tout l’œuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris, 1989, pp. 76-77, no 52.