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Female Agency and Rococo Perversion

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s ‘Young Girl Reading:’ mindful and contemplative, perhaps even a proto-feminist?

Jeremy Sigler
February 02, 2018
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC via Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 'The Reader,' c. 1776.National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC via Wikimedia Commons
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC via Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 'The Reader,' c. 1776.National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC via Wikimedia Commons

Paintings like The Swing (1767) will forever cause Jean-Honoré Fragonard to be remembered as one of the more perverted French painters in history. The rococo masterpiece that Fragonard custom-made to satisfy the baron who commissioned it portrays a naughty scene: a woman with mischief in her eyes, in a lacy gown, silk stockings and a bergère hat, is launched into the air on a velvet-cushioned swing. She holds on firmly as one of her shoes ejects from the tip of her dainty foot into the sunlit canopy. A smiling older man, presumably her husband (perhaps a cuck), stands behind her, dutifully maneuvering the swing. He may or may not be oblivious to a younger man who lurks in the foreground in an overgrown patch of rose bushes spying on the swinging woman from precisely the vantage required to see directly up her billowy dress.

The painting’s unabridged title is The Happy Accidents of the Swing, but clearly, neither the garter nor the voyeur is in any way accidental. The wife swings dangerously, passionately, diagonally, through the depths of the picture, thrilled—one presumes from her dilated expression—by the dizzying speed, height, deceit, and exhibitionism. A stone putti holds his finger to his lips, a couple of cherubs play at a beehive, a tiny dog yaps incessantly. The well-ordered garden has “gone wild,” as they say. Even the foliage seems fertile and abundant, as if each leaf is titillated.

But another kind of Fragonard was recently on view at The National Gallery of Art in Washington I’m referring to Young Girl Reading, painted only three years after The Swing, in 1770. This unbelievable painting is accompanied by the 13 other “Fantasy Figures” of this highly-acclaimed series. The show has come and gone, but surprisingly with little buzz. I guess these paintings aren’t fake enough to be considered fake news, nor real enough to be considered a reality check.

While Fragonard’s canvases were painted rapidly and display a Viagra-enhanced vitality, the atypical Young Girl Reading is both literally and figuratively a slow read. By rococo standards, she is a yawn. The female in the painting, however, is not bored. She is contemplative. Her inward absorption makes for a sobering window into the mind of an 18th-century adolescent. What message is being transferred across this gulf of time and place from her reading of a book to our reading of a work of art?

The “Fantasy Figures” are painted in fragrant set oils. Each sitter is dressed in a ridiculous Spanish costume, replete with fake jewels, plumed hats, slashed puffy shirt sleeves; silk ribbons, rosettes, jazzy feathers, large ruffs, and oversize rapiers. They all look like they’re going to a Don Quixote-themed costume party.

But Fragonard’s cast of posers decked out as 17th-century Spanish gentry are all (bar the anomalous young girl) caught in the act of being in love with themselves. So high are they on themselves that it’s certainly an outrage! An allegory of arrogance! And certainly a fitting analog for today’s greedy plutocrats. It makes one wonder if Fragonard intended to embarrass his courtly sitters, exposing their atrocious self-regard. In his compositions, he often elongates his models’ necks as if he is contemplating their decapitation. Or perhaps he too is in denial of the rising third estate.

If the “Fantasy Figures” evoke tanning salons, dyed comb-overs, slipping dentures, double chins, and neckties that point like red arrows below belt buckles, then Young Girl Reading belongs to a totally different administration. She no doubt benefits from a different painterly consciousness administered with surprising restraint and economy. Perhaps this poised Fragonard is pointing not so much to its own despot (or dick), but to an enlightened one.

Young Girl Reading should be the talk of the town! She is mindful and contemplative, perhaps even a proto-feminist. The painting is anti-rococo. It’s an insult to the joie de vivre of the ultra-privileged. What comes off in other works from the time as the painter’s theatrical indifference, or indifferent theatricality, reads in this painting as deep reflection. All it takes is a quick glance to see how much she contrasts with the ensemble of cartoony gallants of the French aristocracy.

And yet, even with her lack of turbocharged egotism, Fragonard’s coming-of-age Reader, immersed as she is in literature, may be living her own fantasy, not enabling that of the painter’s or, for that matter, the patron’s. Her fantasy is to transform into a new kind of humanized woman. The fact that she has her nose in a book rather than in the air makes her the perfect cover girl for the Enlightenment, for the right, regardless of gender, to an education, to information and ideas.

On one hand, Young Girl Reading is an allegory for the 18th and 19th centuries’ infatuation with progress: reason, rights, revolution, romanticism, realism. But the painting also hints at the past, at unobtainable dreams, at a cesspool of ideologies and antiquated notions of gallantry and romance. The source of Don Quixote’s delusion, for example, is found in the chivalric romances that pack his bookshelves.

Aren’t all of our delusions artworks of the mind? And aren’t such idealized scenarios smuggled into our brains by the most skillful storytellers? Books scribed by dreamers may enlighten and enliven us, but they may also corrupt us, pervert us with unobtainable ambitions and unreasonable emotions.

This may be why, further along in the tradition of the French novel (by the year 1856), writers like Flaubert had contrived a gallery of rebels like Emma Bovary to serve both as catalysts and cautionary tales. Madame Bovary was, after all, perplexed, if not physically pained, by the fact that her mediocre, provincial doctor husband wasn’t anything like the chivalric men she’d read about in romance novels. According to Flaubert, back at the convent:

She on the sly lent the big girls some novel, that she always carried in the pockets of her apron, and of which the good lady herself swallowed long chapters in the intervals of her work. They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, ‘gentlemen’ brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains. For six months, then, Emma, at 15 years of age, made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries.

Is Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading a pre-Flaubertian construction? I wonder as I admire her perfect profile, as she sits with gray posture on the liminal cusp of womanhood, in her lemony dress with white cuffs and purple ribbons, attentive to her page-turner, padded with lilac cushions that could have arrived that day in a cardboard box marked Amazon Prime.

Static as most of her body may be, the painting does have a moment of Fragonard twist, in the delicately animated hand splaying open the pages of her book and holding it before her thirsty mind like a Penguin paperback.

And her other hand? It is welded to the chair’s armrest and remains in view. Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Harvard Art Museums, Cassandra Albinson, has lectured on the significance of this hand, comparing it to Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s 1760 gouache Reading, which shows a woman arching back in a chair, with her breasts out, one limp hand having dropped her erotic book, and the other having disappeared into the folds of her dress.

But in Fragonard’s entirely un-pornographic image Young Girl Reading, the young girl’s body is locked into the composition’s strong horizontal and vertical axes. The walls and chair provide a sense of compression, even traction. The picture is boxy, compartmentalized—unprecedentedly Modern.

And while there’s still plenty of Fragonard in this Fragonard—his schmear—we are not being forced to look at another of his diagonal X compositions with tilting torsos and upward chins conveying an obnoxious sense of arrogance.

The exhibition was organized by one of the National Gallery’s curators, Yuriko Jackall. But why now? Was she seizing the day to juxtapose Fragonard’s “Fantasy Figures” with breaking news: the shaming of some and the shamelessness of others, the daily spin of our white male power mongers? Possibly. But the show is also timed with and inspired by the recent discovery of an unprecedented Fragonard drawing known as Sketches of Portraits (c.1769), a drawing that emerged back in 2012 at a Paris auction and has been doing a number on rococo scholars for the last five years. This sketch, which was never meant to be shown but is more like an inventory or stock sheet with rows of thumbnail sketches and the names of most of the sitters written in Fragonard’s own handwriting! The sketch has been nothing less than a total art historical mind-fuck proving that the “Fantasy Figures” in fact, were never fantasies. They were not painted out of Fragonard’s head but rendered more like quick snapshots of his Facebook friends.

One sitter who was previously thought to have been Diderot turns out to be a relatively average guy, the author and journalist Ange Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon. We now know that the woman with a dog is a wealthy aristocrat from a noble Burgundian family, Marie Émilie Coignet de Courson. The man holding a quill pen is the printer and bookseller Louis François Prault. The harpsichordist who turns away from her instrument as she fingers a musical score on a table is a woman known as Mme Brillon. The Actor is Gabriel Auguste Godefroy, the son of a wealthy Parisian banker, jeweler, and art dealer, and The Warrior is the miniaturist Peter Adolphe Hall, who owned some 20 works by Fragonard.

What is now clear is that Fragonard was networking his ass off at a time when he had just ditched the academy and was hustling to jump-start his career as a brush for hire in the wealthy private sector. He had obtained a studio in an artsy neighborhood and was trying to get the word out that he was available to make site-specific paintings in people’s mansions like The Progress of Love, (1771-73), which currently resides in the Frick Collection. But he was also advertising his prêt-à-paintings if you will—a line of very affordable one-size-fits-all society portraits that could be painted pretty much on the spot and sold for just 24 francs.

Fragonard, in other words, was an entrepreneur, marketing boutique portraits for an especially vain clientele. And perhaps simultaneously he was positioning himself, subversively, to provide commentary, like Voltaire, on a society on the brink of obsolescence.

And yet, the adolescent is not a vanity piece. To the painting’s credit, and perhaps purely a fluke, she remains enshrouded in her own authentic inner life, percolating with ideas. Whether hers is a fantasy of sexual agency or social conquest, it seems to be ripening at the core, not rotten to the core. Perhaps, in other words, she is becoming something other than a bird swinging in a cage.

Ironically, Young Girl’s identity is still unknown. It is possibly Fragonard’s wife, Marie-Anne Gérard, who was born in 1745, which would have made her 25 years old when the painting was painted (which also happens to be the same year their daughter Rosalie Fragonard was born, 1769). Or it is possibly his wife’s sister Marguerite Gérard, who would have been just 14 in 1770. However, Marguerite didn’t become a houseguest with the Fragonards for another five years.

Who then is she? And what is she reading? Both remain a pretty exciting mystery. In the thumbnail of the Young Girl Reading, we discover a blatant inconsistency. The girl looks much older and is clearly turning toward the picture plane and looking out at the viewer rather than appearing in perfect profile absorbed by her book. It is this intriguing detail that caused Jackall to probe, using hyperspectral infrared false-color reflectography to basically X-ray the painting. She and her technicians found that indeed modifications had been made to the painting.

Connecting the dots, one hypothesis is that the original client changed her mind (within 30 days I’m sure) and sent the painting back to Fragonard, who, being the pragmatist that he was, repurposed the canvas, painting on a new head and plugging it into the original costumed, generic body. This substitution may be why her neck, in its current configuration, seems a little disproportionately long, perhaps adding to the feeling of a mind-body disconnect thus lending the work an aura of cerebral potentiality.

The Young Girl Reading is unusually composed around a book. And while the pages of this book only reveal gray horizontal lines imitating the look of text on a page, we are not shown any actual words, nor does the spine give us an author or title. We are thus left to guess what she is reading, what is on the mind of Young Girl thus becoming a matter of projection as well as bibliographic sleuthing. Maybe she is digesting an old worn copy of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), a book that had been in print for more than 10 years, a book that would have been demonstrating that all is not necessarily for the best, in what may not be the best of all possible worlds. It is also conceivable that Young Girl is expanding her mind with the epistolary morality tale by Rousseau, Julie, published in 1761, and the hottest book around for years. Publishers couldn’t keep it in stock and had even begun renting it out by the day and eventually by the hour. Readers were so overcome by Julie that high society women began sending in fan letters to the world’s first rock-star author: “I dare not tell you the effect it made on me,” one woman writes, “I was past weeping. A sharp pain convulsed me. My heart was crushed. Julie dying was no longer an unknown person.”

I see Young Girl Reading as my own daughter, who is just now entering puberty. I’d like to think that I approve of whatever she chooses to read and respect whatever is on her mind.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.

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