Classical Culture

Reflections of the Classical and Renaissance Ideas – From Bosch’s Brabant to Fragonard’s Paris


By Bonnie James

Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures
October 8 – December 3, 2017
West Building, Main Floor

Bosch to Bloemaert: Early Netherlandish Drawings from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
October 8, 2017 – January 7, 2018
West Building, East Outer Tier

Fragonard, Young Girl Reading

Two new exhibitions opened on Sunday, Oct. 8, at the National Gallery of Art; although they are worlds apart, both geographically and conceptually, each, in its own way is worth a visit.

“Fragonard” will generate the most attention, since his works, especially the NGA’s own Young Girl Reading, dated 1769, were aimed to please the public (and generate income for the artist). A newly discovered drawing by Fragonard, and 14 of his paintings that have been identified with it, including Young Girl Reading, comprise this exhibit.

Not to be overlooked, is the second opening Oct. 5, of Netherlandish drawings of the 16th and early 17th centuries, including works by Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Bruegel the Elder, and Hendrick Goltzius, all of whom, to one degree or another, had absorbed the influences of Classical and Renaissance art.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), was a highly esteemed painter in his lifetime, and exemplified the Rococo style, popular in the 18th-Century France of Louis XV: ornate, decorative, colorful, and, like a bit of French puff pastry, not very nutritious—what some might call today, “eye candy.” Yet he was also, like many artists who otherwise reflect the tastes of their time, a gifted painter, and capable of more provocative and thoughtful work.

For example, his 1778 red chalk drawing of Benjamin Franklin, who was then in France to gain support for the American Revolution, is both sensitive and perceptive. Franklin was then staying at the home of the renowned musician and composer Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy, a close friend of Fragonard; her portrait is one of the 14 “Fantasy Figures.”

Fragonard, Benjamin Franklin (1778)

Fragonard’s two trips to Italy, 1760 and 1773, to study the artists of the Renaissance were crucial to his development, and were instrumental in his break with the stuffy French Academy, whose constrictions Fragonard refused to be bound by. The “Fantasy Figures” were painted in 1769 following his first trip to Italy.

Fragonard’s “Figures,” are ingeniously witty—not at all like the frothy bits of whimsy he is best known for. These picaresque characters show a side of the artist that goes deeper to reveal something true and engaging about each figure.

Moreover, while they are described in the literature that accompanies the exhibit as rendered à l’espagnole (Spanish style), i.e., extravagantly dressed in costumes featuring large ruffled collars, ribbons, extravagant jewelry, etc., each is a tour de force of composition, character, color, and pure painting skill. Each shows its subject in a dramatic half-figure pose; most are seated, turning in the space to peer over their shoulders; a few look out at the viewer; more often, they turn to look at something we can’t see, but are left to imagine.

Fragonard, Woman with a Dog

One, Woman with a Dog, is especially droll, and you cannot but imagine that this lady must have had a rollicking good sense of humor to permit herself to be pictured this way

Fragonard’s portrait of François-Henri, Duc d’Harcourt, and that of his brother, Anne-François d’Harcourt, duc de Beuvron, were far from the typical renderings of members of the haute aristocracy. François-Henri is shown in full-blown Spanish attire, with a blindingly white ruff, contrasted with a brilliant crimson sash, and iridescent green/gold blouse. Not at all the couture expected of such an exalted personage. In fact, the pair of portraits were hung in the family estate, but not with the formal family portraits; instead, they were banished to a ground-floor gallery out of public view. A 19th-Century family document lists them as “sketches of two portraits of people in bizarre costumes.”

Fragonard, François-Henri, Duc d’Harcourt

To this reviewer, Fragonard’s “Fantasy Figures” recall the many costumed “fantasy” portraits by Rembrandt, and it is not too far a stretch to imagine that Fragonard had those in mind (for he surely must have been familiar with Rembrandt’s work, at least in copies). Here are Rembrandt’s enchanting portrait of his young wife Saskia, costumed as the mythical Flora,


Rembrandt, Saskia as Flora (1634)

… and a self-portrait with Saskia, dramatically presented as the Prodigal Son in a tavern.


Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, a self-portrait with Saskia (c. 1635)

Thus, Fragonard, painter of enchanting scenes of lovely ladies and young gentlemen, sumptuously dressed in the latest fashions, shows himself to be an artist who both reflected the (silly) tastes of the day, but also one who at times placed himself squarely in the tradition of the Italian and Dutch renaissances of the 15th through the 17th centuries.

Bosch to Bloemaert: Early Netherlandish Drawings

This exhibition of 15th-17th centuries Netherlandish drawings, some 100 works, on loan from Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen explores the many functions of drawings, from preparatory studies for paintings and designs for prints to finished works of art.

The National Gallery exhibit features the tremendous skill and virtuosity of masters such as Hieronymus Bosch, Abraham Bloemaert, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Hendrick Goltzius, at the same time that it presents numerous fascinating works by lesser known artists.

The emergence of free-standing landscape drawing and painting, i.e., as a genre of its own, rather than as background, is one of the most important developments of the period, and is represented in this exhibition by a number of panoramic mountain views by the great master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, along with studies by later artists such Pieter’s son, Jan Breughel, among others.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Owl’s Nest (c. 1505-15)

In Bosch’s The Owl’s Nest (c. 1505/1515), a small (5.5×7.75 inches) pen and ink drawing, we see three little owls in the upper branches of an old tree, along with several other birds. In a tour de force of distinct textures and shading, Bosch (1450-1516) contrasts the rough texture of the tree bark with the soft plumage of the owls’ feathers. So engrossing is the activity of the owls—one has just landed and looks down at the baby owl in the hollow of the tree, while a third nests in the branch above—that you might not notice the miniature landscape in the lower left-hand corner, or the one on the lower right, where you can make out a church tower and windmills. There is another iconic Boschian image at the far left: a wheel on a tall pole where the bodies of those who had been executed were placed as examples to all who might see it. He often used this image as a metaphor for the cruelty of the Spanish Habsburg occupation of the Netherlands (1581 to 1714).

Hans Bol, September, from The Twelve Months (c. 1580-81)

Han Bol (1534-93) produced a series of drawings of the months, a genre that was popularized by Pieter Bruegel. All 12 are on view in the Gallery’s exhibit. These small roundels each depict typical activity for the specific time of year. Here, in the month of September, we see apples being harvested, from the picking of the fruit high up in the tree, then lowered into baskets, and transferred to sacks, loaded onto carts, which are then transported into the beautifully rendered city in the distance.

Pieter Bruegel, Fortitude (1560)

From another series of drawings, the Seven Virtues—Fortitude, Charity, Temperance, Faith, Prudence, Justice, and Hope—the first three of which are shown in the exhibit. The year before, Bruegel had published his print series, The Seven Deadly Sins (The Vices), and what we see here are the preparatory drawings for the Virtues. In Fortitude, a winged woman, Fortitude, stands at the center, as a battle rages around her. She wears a breastplate, and is surrounded by scenes in which the righteous engage in a struggle against monsters and devils, who seem to have jumped directly out of Bruegel’s Vices (which, in turn, were derived from Bosch’s fantasy creations), and onto the battleground. Fortitude’s foot rests on a dragon which has been tamed, an allusion to the triumph of the Archangel Michael over Satan and the rebel angels.

Hendrick Goltzius, Arithmetic (c. 1580)


Like other Netherlandish artists, Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) traveled to Italy, and absorbed the influence of the Classical and Renaissance works he saw there, and from works his fellow artists brought home from the imperial court in Prague. We see evidence of this in his Arithmetic, which, like Bol’s Months and Bruegel’s Virtues, was part of a series of drawings, in this case, of the Seven Liberal Arts, only two others of which, Rhetoric and Geometry have survived. These subjects were derived from Classical antiquity and were viewed in the Middle Ages as the foundation of human knowledge.

The drawing is freely executed, with a combination of rapid pen strokes and washes of red-brown color, creating effects of light and shade. Arithmetic sits on a chair, as she makes figure calculations on a slate, before a barely sketched-in landscape beyond. This work, and the other two extant members of the series were intended as designs for a group of prints. Note that Arithmetic is using her left hand to write, as are the figures in Rhetoric and Geometry, such that when reversed in the printing process, they would have appeared right-handed.

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