Exhibit illuminates Fragonard”s depth

Consuming Passion: Fragonard”s Allegories of Love, a current exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, shows a side to rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard that you won”t see in Art History 101. Fragonard is known for his frothy depictions of the 18th century aristocracy at play. His typical works could be equated to something like My Super Sweet 16: not particularly profound glorifications of the very wealthy. His technique, rather than his subject matter, is what makes him famous today. Many people think that Fragonard stopped painting after the French Revolution, since his style, along with the aristocracy itself, fell out of favor with the coming of the war. Consuming Passion focuses on the works he produced just before his death in 1806. In place of his usual contemporary subjects, he turned to tales of antiquity for inspiration and began painting in a cleaner, more neoclassical style. His colors became darker, his lines more defined, and his subjects more substantive.

The first section of the exhibit features a few works that Fragonard created from 1758 to 1770, that highlight the contrast between his earlier and later works and hint at the foundations from which he developed his later style. One drawing on display, titled “The Waterworks,” is the most typical Fragonard you will find in the collection. It depicts several naked women in a bedroom being splashed with hoses; although it”s a bit racier than Fragonard”s most famous works, it still has the same air of frivolity.

Other works in this section include Classical-inspired landscapes, both from his trips to Rome and from his own imagination. The only painting that doesn”t quite fit in contextually is “The Warrior,” a fantasy portrait that supposedly took him only one hour to complete; however, it is one of the most eye-catching works in the collection due its vibrant colors and impressive brushwork.

The meat of the exhibit lies in the adjacent room, which contains several allegorical paintings that Fragonard created in the 1780s. There are several works corresponding to each allegory, including studies for the final painting and etchings of the paintings done by other artists. The allegories explore the different aspects of love in classical settings. The “Fountain of Love” depicts a couple reaching for a cup offered by several putti, symbolizing marriage and sexual consummation. Two paintings of this allegory are on display; they are virtually identical except that one has much paler tones and a mistier quality reminiscent of Fragonard”s more typical works. The “Sacrifice of the Rose” shows a young woman being abducted by a god who sets fire to a rose; I think you can figure out the deeper meaning of this one on your own.

There are two finished works on display for this allegory, one done in oil and the other in chalk and graphite, along with two studies for the oil painting. The finished chalk and graphite work has the same diagonal composition as the finished oil painting, but the chalk work is not seen as a study piece because Fragonard marked it with a prominent signature. He also highlighted it with watercolors, which was an unusual technique for him, so it is seen as a finished work on its own. The “Fountain of Love” and the “Sacrifice of the Rose” get top billing; only a few studies and etchings done by other artists are on display for the other two allegories, “Invocation to Love” and “Oath of Love.”

The exhibit is summed up eloquently in a quote displayed on one of the walls from an art critic from the 1860s when the allegorical paintings were rediscovered: “Who would have thought that the 18th century was capable of such poetry and passion in the person of its most frivolous painter, Fragonard?” Although relatively small, the exhibit successfully shows a little-known side of Fragonard. The exhibit is supplemented by Printed Love, a small collection of prints done by his contemporaries. Consuming Passion will be on display at the Clark until Jan. 21.