In ‘The Warrior,’ dash and virtuosity

“The Warrior’’ is one of 14 so-called “fantasy portraits’’ painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the 1760s. “The Warrior’’ is one of 14 so-called “fantasy portraits’’ painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the 1760s. (Courtesy of The Sterling And Francine Clark Art Institute)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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New England is bursting at the seams with great art. A lot of it is hiding in plain sight — in the permanent collections of museums, whether city institutions like the Worcester Art Museum and Portland Museum of Art or college museums in Massachusetts and neighboring states. These venues are all open to the public and studded with surprises. The range of work — from contemporary installations to rare Old Masters and treasures from Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East — is extraordinary, part of what makes this part of the world so endlessly stimulating for art lovers.

In a regular series starting today, I will focus on a single work in the permanent collection of one of these public museums. Ranging across cultures and periods, my only criteria will be personal: curiosity, pleasure, astonishment, admiration.

Contrary to the received wisdom, great portraits are not great because of what we learn about their subjects (that they were descended from shipping magnates, that they have their father’s proud nose, or that they were about to be diagnosed with skin cancer). It’s usually quite the opposite: They are great because they remind us how unfathomable people are. The apprehension can be tragic, sexy, sometimes even hilarious. And in the case of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Warrior (Fantasy Portrait),’’ it can be all three.

Who is this actor strutting his stuff, with his swept-back hair, his oversized ruff, his fashionably slashed sleeve, and his gleaming, hilted sword? He’s all dash, all bravado. And yet look at his ravaged face, his red nose, his collapsing cheeks! If this is a warrior, he has “failed exploits’’ written all over him.

Fragonard, who made the color yellow sprightlier and saucier than any other artist before or since, was a student of Chardin and then of Boucher in that most pastel-colored of centuries, the 18th. He did not live up to his potential, which is part of what we love about him (in those days, living up to one’s potential meant painting grandiloquent myth-mongering set pieces of utter tedium). Instead, Fragonard painted delightful genre scenes, dashing portraits, and men looking up the skirts of young women on swings.

This portrait, which was acquired by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in 1964, is one of 14 so-called “fantasy portraits’’ painted by Fragonard (1732-1806) in the 1760s.

When it was bought, it was immediately described by art historians as “the finest single painting in the collection’’ and “the greatest acquisition that will be made by any American museum in 1964.’’

How Fragonard would have beamed. He was, after all, an incorrigible show-off. They say he knocked off each of the “fantasy portraits’’ in a matter of hours, just to prove his virtuosity. I don’t believe it. But there is something undeniably headlong about the way “The Warrior’’ has been painted, which may be why people saw it as a forerunner of the styles of Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists. It’s one of New England’s greatest pictures.


At: Sterling and Francine Clark

Art Institute, Williamstown.