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Art Review

Tracing Fragonard's path from lustful to loving

An oil on canvas depiction of 'The Sacrifice of the Rose' is one of the works by Fragonard on display in 'Consuming Passion' at Clark Art Institute. An oil on canvas depiction of "The Sacrifice of the Rose" is one of the works by Fragonard on display in "Consuming Passion" at Clark Art Institute. (COURTESY OF THE STERLING AND FRANCINE CLARK ART INSTITUTE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Greg Cook
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2008

WILLIAMSTOWN - The French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard is best known for the frothy scenes of wink-wink-nudge-nudge erotic intrigue with which he made his name. But as the exhibit "Consuming Passion: Fragonard's Allegories of Love" at the Clark Art Institute shows, in his later work hedonistic shenanigans were out and grand, mythic love was in.

"Consuming Passion," organized by Los Angeles's Getty Museum in association with the Clark, explores this often overlooked work of Fragonard's middle age through a small, slight exhibition of 26 works; just 16 are by Fragonard.

Fragonard (1732-1806) was one of the leading figures - along with François Boucher, his teacher, and Jean-Antoine Watteau - of the French rococo style that came to prominence after the death of King Louis XIV in 1715. Under the Sun King, French art favored weighty religious and historical themes, but rococo's flirty pastoral, mythological, and boudoir scenes were as light and bubbly as champagne.

Two works here give a taste of Fragonard's rococo style. The faint ink drawing "The Waterworks" (c. 1765-'70) depicts three nearly naked ladies on a pair of beds being sprayed by water shot from a trap door in the floor. In the oil painting "Useless Resistance" (c. 1770), a young woman, who is having trouble keeping her nightgown on, prepares to whack a boy at the end of her bed with a pillow.

The Clark adds context with a saucy small companion exhibit, "Printed Love," featuring French prints from the second half of the 18th century. A boy climbs in a window to meet a half-dressed girl who holds a finger to her lips to warn him not to wake her parents, who are asleep in the next room. In another work, a young woman coupled with an old, paunchy man slips her calling card to a young man following behind her. It's deliciously naughty.

By the 1780s, though, Fragonard had begun to take on a new tone that comes across even in the titles of the paintings, drawings, and prints (by other artists copying Fragonard's original compositions) here: "The Oath of Love," "The Warrior's Dream of Love," "The Invocation to Love." The work remains sexy, but the characters change from friends-with-benefits to mythic soul mates.

Fragonard idealizes and ennobles the sexiness with high-flown allegory. A couple dash to drink from a cup Cupid has dipped in "The Fountain of Love." A woman swoons before a statue of a nude, winged Eros. A couple kiss while pressing their hands to a stone plaque inscribed with an "oath to love for one's entire life." Eros swoops out of the sky, thrusts his torch into a cracked-open sarcophagus, and amidst a flash of light and smoke, a kissing couple appear. Love - or at least passion - even conquers death.

In these allegories, Fragonard continues to focus on ladies with perky bosoms, rosy cheeks, doughy bottoms, and trouble keeping their clothes on. But he ditches rococo's sunny, sugary pastels for chiaroscuros in white, brown, and honey gold that glow like hot embers. Perhaps the creeping darkness reflected something of the mood of the times; at the end of the decade, France would explode in bloody revolution.

Fragonard also appears to be adopting some of the trappings of the neoclassical style that had become all the rage. You see it in his references to Grecian-style attire and when he sets the action in shallow spaces that recall ancient friezes. But neoclassical art tended to address public figures or citizens' patriotic duty to the nation, while Fragonard's theme is the private world of lovers.

The exhibit is at its best when it bores in on Fragonard's development of "The Sacrifice of the Rose" in drawings and paintings from about 1785 to '88. One drawing sets the action in a columned temple. A damsel faints (luckily putti are there to catch her) and her dress falls open as Eros wings in and presses his flaming torch to the flower in her hand. (Deflower, get it?)

An oil study shows Eros holding up the woman, who has passed out in what must be orgasmic ecstasy. Perhaps this was too explicit for Fragonard (or his patrons) because an oil painting that is his most highly finished and detailed version of the theme here alters the action slightly. A smiling, sleepy-eyed woman in a sheer gown stumbles back into a pillow of clouds as Eros holds her hand and sets fire to her flower, which rests on an altar that resembles a stumpy column. Putti flap down out of the clouds with a crown of flowers for her, as if she's won some Olympic contest.

Consuming Passion: Fragonard's Allegories of Love and Printed Love

At: Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Jan. 21. 413-458-2303, clarkart.edu

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