Jean-Honore Fragonard Biography Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Discover the path to success taken by Fragonard in this detailed biography, covering his life and career.

Born on 5th April 1732 in Grasse, France, Jean-Honore Fragonard was a French artist and printmaker of the late Rococo style. His paintings are still noted today for their theatrical opulence, typical of this late Baroque period, and his portraits and paintings are also particularly notable for their richly voluptuous characters as well as their unashamedly sensual atmospheres.

Jean-Honore Fragonard's father, François Fragonard, was a glove maker and during his early childhood, the Fragonard family endured much financial hardship. Originally beginning a career as a notary in Paris, Jean-Honore Fragonard could not conceal his natural talent as an artist, and at age eighteen began his tutelage with the esteemed Rococo painter and etcher, François Boucher. Although the young Jean-Honore Fragonard impressed Boucher, the older artist did not want an artist's apprentice, and sent him instead to be mentored by another renowned artist of the period, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Chardin was famous for his still life and genre paintings, and was especially skilled at capturing the activities of those in domestic service with insight and accuracy. Jean-Honore Fragonard studied with Chardin for six months, before returning once again to work for Boucher. This time, Boucher instructed the young artist to work by replicating his own paintings, with Fragonard having by now significantly refined his natural artistic gifts during his time as Chardin's atelier.

Fragonard next went on to study at the French Academy in Rome, which he attended thanks to his winning the Prix de Rome scholarship in 1752. Fragonard studied in Rome for three years and painted a number of notable religious paintings, including Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles which can be found today on display in the Cathedral of his hometown, Grasse. Whilst studying in Rome, Fragonard became close friends with fellow artist, Hubert Robert, and together they would go on to tour Italy in 1760, capturing many pastoral scenes. This was a turning point for Fragonard, who fell in love with the romance of the countryside, and determined to continue to capture it through his art. During this transformative time, Fragonard also began to closely study painters such as Rubens and Rembrandt, endeavouring to learn from the way they infused their paintings with such joie de vivre and tried to replicate their languorous brushstrokes in his own works. During a stay in Venice, Fragonard closely studied the works of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo too, another Rococo influenced painter, whose works were rich with colour and dramatic flare. After his year long tour, Fragonard returned to Paris in 1761.

1765 proved to be another pivotal year in the young artist's career. Having spent time travelling and exploring pastoral works and moving away from his previous religious inspired artwork, Fragonard returned to the Academy in Rome where he painted Coresus et Callirhoe. French philosopher Denis Diderot was so impressed by the work, he wrote a tribute espousing his praise for the artist, and King Louis XV purchased the work in question. Having now caught the attention of the King, Fragonard was suddenly in demand by a host of affluent clients. These included ballerina Madeleine Guimard and Louis XV's Maîtresse-en-titre, Madame du Barry, who loved his opulence and the gentle eroticism of his works. This saw Fragonard turn his focus to more crowd pleasing paintings, with La Chemise Enlevée, La Culbute and L'escarpolette (which is considered to be Fragonard's most famous painting and an exemplary example of the Late Eighteenth Century Rococo style) amongst his most popular paintings of this period.

Despite now being an artist in high demand and with many successful commissions under his belt, not all of Jean-Honore Fragonard's works received an overwhelmingly positive critical reception. After focusing for so long on painting and printing in the Rococo style, Fragonard now opted to try his hand instead at Neoclassicalism. Originating in Rome, the Neoclassical style drew inspiration from the ancient classics, especially of the Greek and Roman periods. It was also during this time that he met and married his wife, Marie-Anne Gérard, who was also a painter but primarily in miniatures. Their daughter Rosalie was born on 17th June 1769 and she soon became one of her father's most favourite subjects to paint. When Rosalie was four years old, Jean-Honore Fragonard once again decided to travel in order to expand his artistic knowledge and horizons. His companions were Pierre-Jacques Onézyme Bergeret de Grancourt and his son. Over the course of the next year, the three travelled through Italy and toured other major European cities including Prague, Frankfurt and Vienna.

On his return to France, Jean-Honore Fragonard hired his wife's teenage sister to be his assistant and pupil. Son Alexandre-Évariste was born to the Fragonard's in 1780. Later, Alexandre-Évariste would follow in his parent's artistic footsteps and become a celebrated sculptor and painter in his own right. Life for the Fragonard family was rather happy and stable at this point, until the outbreak of the French Revolution on 5th May 1789. Where once Fragonard had been able to count on commissions from wealthy patrons, now most of them were forced to either flee the French capital or be rounded up and executed by guillotine. With most of his rich clientele now all but gone, Fragonard and his family also decided in 1790 to leave Paris and returned instead to Jean-Honore Fragonard's birthplace of Grasse, where they found refuge and safety in the home of his cousin, Alexandre Maubert.

Despite a prolific career of 550 paintings, by the end of his life, Jean-Honore Fragonard's reputation had almost been completely forgotten, with his paintings having slipped into obscurity. He and his family eventually returned to Paris, where he died unobtrusively in 1806. It would be more than half a century later before Fragonard's works would be rediscovered by the Impressionists, and his skill as an artist, particularly when it comes to brushwork and colour, would be fully appreciated and his reputation restored for posterity.