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The Bolt

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

French painting

Séverine Laborie

As a pendant to The Adoration of the Shepherds, “by a bizarre contrast” Fragonard painted a picture “free and full of passion” (Lenoir, 1816), showing profane as opposed to sacred love. Its porcelain-like light effects illustrate the evolution of his work after he returned from his second trip to Italy in 1774.

The Bolt and its pendant, The Adoration of the Shepherds

The composition of The Bolt appeared for the first time in a drawing by Fragonard auctioned in 1777 and popularized by Blot’s 1784 engraving. The picture acquired by the Louvre in 1974 was therefore painted between these two dates. It was commissioned by the Marquis de Véri, as a pendant to The Adoration of the Shepherds (RF 1988-11), but the two works separated at the auction after his death in 1785, and were not reunited until The Adoration of the Shepherds was donated to the Louvre in 1988. The only thing the pictures have in common is their format and color range, yet their strange contrast was not merely the result of some painterly whim.

A hidden meaning?

At first sight, The Bolt is just another of the many amorous scenes Fragonard painted. A woman is half-heartedly fending off her lover’s advances. But looking closer, one notices intriguing details. Why is the man bolting the door if the room is already in a disarray indicating what is to come? In this light, certain objects unveil their erotic symbolism: the knocked-over chair (legs in the air), the vase and roses (allusions to the female genitals), the bolt (male genitals), and especially the bed, taking up most of the left of the composition. Its anthropomorphic forms make it the scene’s principal actor, and its manifest disorder embodies the protagonists’ sexual urges.

Beyond this, opinions differ. D. Arasse considers The Bolt and The Adoration to be complementary illustrations of the power of love and desire in their human, spiritual and physical dimensions. For J. Thuillier, on the other hand, the two pictures contrast profane and sacred love, sin and redemption. The Bolt symbolizes Eve’s temptation (in which case the apple on the table is charged with meaning) which, in Christian tradition is sometimes associated with the Nativity.

A sign of an artistic evolution

A simple genre scene in the saucy spirit of the Louis XVI period, or a moralist history painting? The Bolt deliberately upsets the hierarchy of genres. Whatever meaning we ascribe it, the picture breaks with Fragonard’s previous work. He painted it after 1774 and the second stay in Italy which revitalized his inspiration. Having been refused a prestigious commission by Countess du Barry, Fragonard wanted to show his ability to adapt to evolutions in taste and the emergence of the Neoclassical style of Vien (see Inv 8431) and Pierre. In this purified composition, he reinterprets Dutch art, particularly that of Rembrandt. His smoother, more faience-like treatment, reduced palette and forms softened by the use of sfumato yet powerfully modeled in chiaroscuro, imbue his late works with a new poetry and gravity.


- Fragonard, catalogue d'exposition Paris, Grand Palais, 24 septembre 1987-4 janvier 1988 ; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2 fevrier-8 mai 1988, cat. et comm. P. Rosenberg et M.-A. Dupuy, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1987.

- THUILLIER J., « Tableaux de Fragonard et meubles de Cressent », in Le Petit Journal des grandes expositions, nouvelle série, n° 10, 1974.

- CUZIN J.-P., Jean-Honoré Fragonard, vie et œuvre, Fribourg, 1987.

- FRANCK J., « Le Verrou dans l’œuvre de Fragonard », in L’Estampille, n° 227, juillet-août 1989, pp. 68-82.

- Arasse D., Le Détail : pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture, Paris, Flammarion, 1992.

Technical description

  • Jean-Honoré FRAGONARD (Grasse, 1732 - Paris, 1806)

    The Bolt

    about 1777

  • H. : 0,74 m. ; L. : 0,94 m.

  • 1974

    Pendant to the painting The Adoration of the Shepherds

    R.F. 1974-2

  • Paintings

    Sully wing
    2nd floor
    Room 929

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