Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century
Prints and Drawings
Reading is one of a series of wash drawings-Fragonard's favorite technique in the 1770s and 1780s-featuring one or two figures asleep, absorbed in reading or drawing, or whispering secrets. A wash drawing in the Bojmans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, of two young women talking could well have been intended as a pendant to this drawing.
Fragonard often enjoyed painting or drawing scenes of reading or scenes showing people leafing through parchment albums, such as the Portrait of Diderot or The Study. In this work, a woman with her back to us is absorbed in a little book whose pale pages can be seen over her shoulder as she reads aloud. Her companion's graceful pose indicates that she is listening intently while the tale sets her to daydreaming. The artist plays with the opposing positions of the two figures and hints at their different social status without making the difference too explicit. The young woman reading aloud is wearing a little bonnet and a scarf tied round her neck; her mantle is draped over her rustic-looking chair. The woman listening is sitting in an elegant armchair. Her hairstyle is sophisticated and she is wearing a collaret and satin gown.
A virtuoso handling of the wash technique
The two models have often been identified as Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837) and Marie-Anne Fragonard (1745-1823), the artist's sister-in-law and wife respectively. Given the age of the younger figure, a date around 1778 seems likely. This date corresponds to what we know of Fragonard's style at that period. Around then, he produced a number of wash drawings of genre scenes, developing a remarkable level of skill in the technique. He played with contrasting effects in making the subject stand out against a background that ranged in tone from the darkest to the palest ink wash. The two women are bathed in delicate light, which picks out the folds of the satin gown and the chignon worn by the woman on the left.
Fragonard the poet
In the end, the identity of the two models hardly matters. The subject is not a study of posed models, nor is it a transcription of a particular instant. Stripped of all superfluous detail, the scene becomes almost timeless - a moment of pure poetry.
BibliographyAnanoff Alexandre, L'Oeuvre dessiné de Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), F. de Nobele, I, 1961, n 61, II, fig. 27.
Rosenberg Pierre, Fragonard, cat. exp. Grand-Palais, Metropolitan Museum, 1987-1988, Éditions de la réunion des musées nationaux, n 270.
Cuzin Jean-Pierre, Fragonard, musée du Louvre, Milan, 5 continents, coll. "Cabinet des dessins", 2003, n 25.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse, 1732-Paris, 1806)
Brown wash over black chalk
H. 28.3 cm; L. 21 cm
Saint-Morys collection; seizure of émigrés' possessions, 1793; allocated to the Museum, 1796-97
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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