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Frago Fragen: fraglos or farrago?

16 July 2020

[See 29 July 2020 postscript at end of this piece.]

Vincent Noce’s article in today’s Gazette Drouot concerns the vexed question of a group of drawings which relate to a multivolume Histoire de la maison de Bourbon published (the relevant volumes, 2 and 3, in 1776 and 1782) by the prince de Condé’s librarian, Joseph-Louis Ripault-Desormeaux, recently acquired by the Louvre, 14 of which are attributed to Fragonard. I’m going to assume that you have read his article as well as the scholarly analysis published in the Revue de l’art last October by Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey. You can also consult the entries in the Dictionary of pastellists for Fragonard and for Lemonnier (not that they will tell you much: I’ve listed them in short form, without J numbers or attribution status codes). Here is a link to the Louvre press release. And it may be handy to have a link to the engravings as published, here. But if you want to know what the row is about, here is an accepted pastel by Fragonard (private collection):

Fragonard Enfant

And here is one of the drawings attributed to Fragonard in the Louvre’s acquisition:

Saint-Louis

Can they really be by the same hand?

Spoiler alert: I don’t know. As you can see from the Dictionary entries, I haven’t reached a view. That is because I have been unable to examine them in person, and because all but two of the photographs supplied by the Louvre are completely inadequate for any reliable assessment to be made; those in the Revue de l’art are also of low resolution.

What is clear is that the gap between the accepted Fragonard (which may not be to everyone’s taste, but that is another matter entirely) and some at least of these drawings is big enough for there to need to be a compelling and consistent narrative to explain their creation. Xavier Salmon, quoted in Noce’s article, promises an “exposition dossier” next year: if it is to succeed it must I think provide coherent answers to the questions that arise.

One group or two?

The first question is whether the four sheets attributed to Lemonnier have the same full provenance as the 14 “Fragonards”. If so, why did Dupuy-Vachey not mention them – or was she not shown them? If they are in identical “chemises”, taken from the same album, executed on the same paper and in the same technique, doesn’t that point to their being by the same hand? And since the “Lemonniers” relate to prints expressly after Lemonnier that would be awkward for the attribution of the other 14. So the 14-Fragonard theory requires a material difference between these 4. As Noce’s article makes clear, opinion is divided as to the degree of stylistic homogeneity within the 14. Note also that only five of these are “anchored” to prints “after” Fragonard.

I assume Salmon’s reference to the acquisition of “dix-neuf feuilles” in his written response to Noce’s question is a simple mistake. Only 18 are disclosed in the press release.

Material: pastel or chalk?

This might seem a technical question of limited interest, but grisaille pastel is an unusual medium in France at the time: for different artists to adopt it must be improbable, so this goes again to the question of independently created original works by different artists or a homogeneous set of riccordi made by a single hand. One should note that while it is common for engravers to make chalk drawings from paintings from which to prepare their plates for engraving, the chalk used is usually harder (pierre noire or sanguine) so as to provide the necessary precision.

It’s probably worth spelling out the technical distinction here (see my Prolegomena, §iv.4.1.1), particularly since it is virtually impossible to tell with the naked eye whether you have black pastel (ground pigment such as ivory black – pure carbon, filler and binder); a naturally occurring mineral; or an artificially reconstituted soft black chalk (usually containing schist): all three can be soft, friable and leave deposits on touching paper. Spectroscopy can determine the make-up, and crucially the homogeneity of the material used in the 18 sheets.

The analysis of the paper which Salmon refers to will also be relevant, particularly as one sheet apparently bears a 1776 watermark. As one of the engravings (that by Gaucher) is actually dated 1774, if the drawing for that is on the same paper, it cannot be preparatory, even though engraving and drawing are reversed – so why should it be assumed the others are? (The watermark also undermines Dupuy-Vachey’s chronology of 1768–70 for all 14 drawings. In any case even by 1768 Fragonard was a 36-year-old history painter, so any awkwardness in some of the drawings cannot be explained by youth.)

Sequence

The fundamental problem I have had since the publication last year is that the 14 drawings looked from the reproductions dry, boring and of limited quality. In contrast the only one for which an oil version is known, the comte d’Enghien in Grasse (collection Costa), is so obviously “right”:

Fragonard Francois de Bourbon duc dEnghien hst

So how does one explain the relationship? The press release argues firmly that the oil was not used for the engraving: “cette œuvre peinte offre des variantes avec la gravure…et ne peut donc en être le modèle. Le dessin ne présent en revanche aucune variante.” That seems a strange claim, even allowing for the poor reproduction which may conceal the presence of some details in the drawing, but for example the number of pearls in the hat-band is the same in the oil and print (which I’ve reversed for the purposes of this comparison of details: left to right, drawing/oil/print), and different in the drawing:

Francois de Bourbon 3 versions tete

This analysis however doesn’t solve the problem, as it excluded a simple narrative in which the “pastels” were intermediate engraver’s drawings from Fragonard oil originals.

Provenance

I should perhaps clarify the slightly cryptic statement in Noce’s article about the provenance. As will be clear the 18 sheets do not cover even all the images published by Desormeaux: the frontispiece by Boucher is missing, as are the drawings related to the engravings after Vincent. So when Dupuy-Vachey suggested (p. 72, n.47: tentatively, while the Louvre seems to have adopted without question) that the 14 sheets corresponded with (“rapprocher”) Lot 4 of the Anisson-Duperron sale in 1795 (“Neuf portraits d’hommes & femmes, dessinés aux crayons noir & blanc, par Fragonard & Vincent”), I wasn’t completely convinced by the arithmetic (although Lot 2, which included “64 dessins à plume, lavés à l’encre et au bistre, par Fragonard et Vincent” might – who knows – have provided some of the missing originals in a medium more often used by Fragonard). Just after Dupuy-Vachey’s article was published, I decided to look harder, and I discovered (in December) what is now accepted by Dupuy-Vachey and the Louvre as a critical additional provenance: the album with all 14 sheets, possibly the four Lemonniers as well, and several more, were in the Lamy sale in 1808, as Lot 5225: 25 drawings by Boucher and Fragonard, of which 21 by Fragonard. Even if all the Lemonniers were misattributed to Fragonard, there are still some missing; Boucher is thought just to have produced the frontispiece early in the series. (Lot 5224 does not seem to match Lot 2 in the 1795 sale.) By the time of the Bignon sale in 1848, only 19 Fragonards remained (given erroneously to his son).

My view is that the Lamy sale is an alternative, not an additional, provenance to Anisson-Duperron, and that it is most likely that Lamy acquired the drawings directly from the draughtsman or -men, increasing the likelihood that these were riccordi for a personal collection.

Pierre-Michel Lamy (1752-p.1829), libraire, 21 quai des Augustins, was active as a publisher of genealogical works such as La Chesnaye des Bois. He took over the Prault publishing business based at that address, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that living in that building was also the artist Jean-Marie Ribou, until his rather hasty marriage in October 1777 (just a few weeks before his daughter was born: his wealthy wife “non commune en biens” subsequently lived apart). Although Ribou was the son of an actor, his grandfather, uncles etc. were all Parisian booksellers. Ribou you will recall is responsible for the Chantilly series of small oil portraits of the members of the house of Bourbon (some using the same images as the present group) which were long assumed also to be by Fragonard until documentation identified the virtually unknown peintre du prince de Condé, notably a letter from Desormeaux to d’Angiviller (quoted, with the detailed background, in the 1958 Seligman article). This explains the prince de Condé’s project and his selection of Ribou. As it happens, his version of the comte d’Enghien follows the drawing, not the oil or print, at least for the pearls in the hat-band.

Ribou

Of course I’m not proposing Ribou as the artist of the Louvre sheets (I know no example of a pastel by him, and the oils seem too “flou” to support the attribution); nevertheless the proximity of the circumstances suggests that a deeper look into this than a mere footnote may be worthwhile.

Stylistic analysis

As I’ve said above I cannot reach a firm view about this series without at the least seeing far better images of 12 of the “Fragonards” and all four “Lemonniers”. What I can say is that the images of the comte d’Enghien and Louis Ier, prince de Conde sufficed to show that the drawings were of far higher quality than the small reproductions had suggested: there was more freedom and vigour in the use of the chalk and bold highlights which may after all be “right”.

There were also some idiosyncracies which I think may provide clues as to attribution, particularly if the Louvre exhibition can show us similar examples. Among these I would note the treatment of the mouths: not only are the outer forms of the lips compressed into a bizarre zig-zag shape, but even the horizontal line of the lips joining shows the same distortion, a feature which I think is extremely uncommon. Does it appear in any other Fragonard portraits? Is it present in the Lemonniers (I can’t see from the minute thumbnails, but it may be). Perhaps this is no more than an idea Fragonard may have developed of a genetic Bourbon malformation.

There also seem to be oddities in the placement of the catchlights in the eyes, contradicting the apparent sources of light. As to why some of the drawings are really very dull, perhaps this is down to the lack of interest Fragonard might have had in the project. Unlike his brilliant fantasy figures in oil, here he had to please a prince with delusions of historical accuracy and a dry librarian.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps, even if all 14 sheets are pastels by Fragonard, they are just not right for the Louvre. Perhaps the test should be to imagine how they would fare had they been included in Xavier Salmon’s 2018 exhibition of the Louvre’s pastels, drawn from the greatest collection in the world – but from which Fragonard was absent. Where would they have ranked? Is it the place art history now generally assigns to him, or not really what he deserves?

As the artist’s grandson put it, Gens, honorez Fragonard!

Postscript (29 July 2020)

I am pleased to say that a series of high resolution images have just been made available on the website of Jean-Luc Baroni & Marty de Cambiaire, from this page. They are accompanied by an excellent write-up by Laurie Marty de Cambiaire, here, which answers some (if not all) of the questions raised above. It is now clear that the four Lemonnier sheets are by a different hand, and essentially irrelevant to the attribution of the 14 sheets given to Fragonard. This latter group does indeed demonstrate a very wide range of achievement, both among those which were engraved and those not (several – e.g. saint Louis; Blanche – are so feeble and so unlike the known Fragonard œuvre that it is difficult to accept them). Nevertheless all appear to be by one hand. Some (e.g. Beaujeu; Bayard) of them demonstrate a bold and free handling of which no one but Fragonard could be suspected. To take just one passage, who but Fragonard could have depicted the flesh of old age as, in Shakespearean terms, melted, thawed and resolved:

SvB

If the technique itself has no direct parallels in Fragonard’s work, isn’t Beaujeu sufficiently close to what he might be expected to have done that, together with the inescapable logic of the letters on the engravings, the attribution should  be accepted, and I think applied to the whole group?

This is Frago en Protée.

From → Art history

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