Black stone counterproof
11 ¼” x 8 ½” (285 x 215 mm) - Framed: 18 7/8” x 15 ¾” (48 cm x 40 cm)
Catalogue: Ananoff 1096 - Panopticon Italiano 130
Louis XVI style carved and gilded wood frame
This brilliant study sheet, of which we present here a counterproof, is a souvenir of Fragonard's return journey from Italy. Between April and September 1761, he accompanied the abbot of Saint-Non on his way back to France. Three studies after the masters taken from the Pitti Palace’s gallery in Florence are gathered on this sheet. Although The Ecstasy of Saint Margaret of Cortona by Giovanni Lanfranco and The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth after Rubens present classical themes, the presence of a mocking angel, a "victorious love" of secular appearance, heralds the gallant scenes that would make the artist famous after his return to Paris.
1. The first stay in Italy, a decisive step in Jean-Honoré Fragonard's artistic development
Jean-Honoré Fragonard was born in Grasse in 1732 where his father worked as a glove maker. The family moved to Paris around 1738. At the age of 13, Jean-Honoré's artistic talents were noticed by the notary with whom he worked as a clerk. After briefly attending Jean-Siméon Chardin's workshop, the young Fragonard joined François Boucher's workshop as an apprentice. It was thanks to Boucher that he affirmed his talent and learned to copy the masters. In 1752, he won the Grand Prix of the Royal Academy of Painting, which allowed him to join the Royal School of Protected Pupils directed at the time by Carle Van Loo. In 1756 he left for the French Academy in Rome where he stayed until 1761.
During this stay he made friends with Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non, the famous abbot of Saint-Non, who became his protector and main patron. Although we do not know the exact date of their meeting, during the summer of 1760 they stayed together at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli for several weeks. In March 1761 the abbot de Saint-Non sent Fragonard to Naples at his own expense.
The abbot of Saint-Non then offered Fragonard to accompany him on his return trip to France. Fragonard was 29 years old in 1761 (five years younger than the abbot) and had not yet achieved fame when he left Italy. They left Rome in April 1761 and travelled together for over five months. The abbot wrote to his brother about Fragonard: "Monsieur Fragonard is all fire; his drawings are very numerous: one does not wait for the other; they enchant me. I find spell in them"...
2. The drawings made for the abbot of Saint-Non on his return trip to France
As was customary, the patron paid the travel expenses and in return received from the artist the (numerous) studies made during the trip. At this stage, 370 studies, mostly executed in black stone, are known to have been made during this five-month journey.
Their itinerary was classic: Siena, Florence, Pisa, Venice (where they stayed for six weeks), Padua, Vincenzo, Verona, Mantua, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, Parma and finally Genoa from where they returned to France by sea. They were in Florence between April 17th and May 6th 1761. We learn from the Journal of the abbot that the Pitti Palace was their first visit in Florence.
Most of Fragonard's drawings are not slavish copies of the artworks seen in Italy. As we shall see for the drawing presented here, they present a subjective selection of groups of figures or details that caught the artist's imagination and were deemed interesting as models for his future productions.
The counterproofs were made shortly after their return to Paris in September 1761. It is likely that Saint-Non, who owned a press, supervised their production and annotated them with a pen using grey ink, as the annotations in black stone on the original drawings were illegible after transfer. To make a counterproof, a sheet of wet paper was placed on top of the drawing and the whole thing was pressed, allowing the transfer of the image in reverse. These counterproofs were sometimes redrawn to increase their vigour, either by the abbot de Saint-Non or directly by Fragonard. This does not seem to have been the case for the drawing we present.
One of the purposes of making the counterproofs was probably to enable both Fragonard and the abbot de Saint-Non to have a complete set of drawings. These counterproofs were at the time as highly regarded as the drawings themselves, and were frequently used by artists as a starting point for new compositions.
3. Description of the artwork and related artworks
As always, our counterproof has been pasted on a light cardboard. We believe that it probably comes from a set "composed largely of counterproofs, which has now been divided. [They] belong to descendants of the abbot of Saint-Non living in Paris and its surrounding area".
In this work, Fragonard freely combines the main groups of two paintings from the Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace: The Ecstasy of Saint Margaret of Cortona by Giovanni Lanfranco and The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth, after Rubens (photos in the gallery). It is interesting to note that in each case he retained only a part of the painting, in a very personal aesthetic re-creation process.
While only the group of Saint Margaret and the two angels is included in Lanfranco's painting, the figure of Saint Elizabeth is omitted in the painting after Rubens, as Fragonard prefers to concentrate on the group formed by the Virgin, the infant Jesus and Saint John the Baptist.
Fragonard balances his sheet by introducing a third element between these two groups, each made of three figures: an evocation of The Victorious Love by Orazio Riminaldi (last photo in the Gallery). His sense of interpretation is at its strongest with this painting, as he transforms the dark ephebe painted by the Caravaggio painter into a graceful putto, while taking up the questioning gesture of his hand, which acquires an ironic dimension.
It seems to us that this putto is a forerunner of the statues of love that would adorn the love gardens of the painter's mature compositions, as for example in the Swing (Wallace Collection - London - UK).
The drawing is presented in a carved and gilded wooden frame in the Louis XVI style.
Main bibliographical references :
Pierre Rosenberg (with the collaboration of Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée) - Panopticon Italiano - Edizioni dell' Elefante 1986
Pierre Rosenberg - Fragonard - RMN 1987
Perrin Stein (with contributions by Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey, Eunice Williams, Kelsey Brosnan) - Fragonard Drawing Triumphant - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2016
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