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Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)

The Feast in the House of Simon

counterproof, worked up in black chalk

Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 16 December 2013, lot 93.
Private collection, England.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard began his artistic training at the age of eighteen in the studio of the still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). He later worked in the studio of François Boucher (1703-1799), where his skill in imitating Boucher’s style was so remarkable that he was soon entrusted with copying his master’s paintings. Although not yet an Academy member, Fragonard won the Prix de Rome in 1752 which allowed him to travel to Italy. However, he delayed his trip to Italy for three years to study under Carle van Loo (1705-1765).

In 1756 Fragonard finally travelled to Italy where he met with the painter and printmaker Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non (1727-1791), better known as Abbé de Saint-Non. The latter commissioned Fragonard to record works of art in Italy which resulted in a monumental group of some 370 drawings. Many of these can now be found in museum collections across the world, most importantly the British Museum and the Norton Simon Museum. The present drawing is a counterproof, reworked by the artist in black chalk, of a drawing made in 1761 during Fragonard’s journey from Naples back to Paris, [1] now in the British Museum, London. [2]

The composition in derives from a monumental painting (in reverse to the present drawing) by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) executed in circa 1556 for the refectory of the Santi Nazaro e Celso in Verona which is now in the Galleria Sabauda, Turin. [3] The Abbé held Veronese’s painting in very high esteem, describing it as ‘a famous picture...that may certainly be considered as his best work and most preserved one anywhere’ in his diary of 1761. [4] Saint-Non’s appreciation for Veronese’s work led to quite a large number of drawings after the Venetian artist by Fragonard’s; ten of such sheets, for example, can be found in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. [5]

The drawings made by Fragonard for Saint-Non during his Italian stay remained in the latter’s possession and some their way to Saint-Non’s various publications of aquatints which reproduced the drawings. [6] A large number of the drawings were counterproofed soon after Fragonard’s return in Paris, probably in order for both artists to have their own set. [7] As is the case with the present drawing, these counterproofs were often reworked by Fragonard, as was common practice in French art in the 18th Century. [8] Another example of such a drawing over a black chalk counterproof by Fragonard is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [9]

The drawings after the Old Masters, in which Fragonard often selected certain elements of interest, allowed the artist to emulate and rival with the greatest works of art by the Old Masters. The essence of this artistic dialogue was summarized by the great collector Edmond de Goncourt as following:

‘He [Fragonard] studied, questioned, copied, penetrated them [works by other masters]. He entered into their works and might almost be said to have despoiled them. From Tiepolo, he took his cleverness and his scintillation; from Solimena he borrowed a sensuousness of his brushwork; from Pietro da Cortona, his trembling sunbeams, his uncertain, dancing light; and from Baroccio his miraculous dabblings and the floating vagueness of his paint. [In his] passionate labour... he held the masters he loved in the close embrace of his emulation.’ [10]

[1] See P. Rosenberg and B. Brejon De Lavergnée, Panopticon italiano: un diario di viaggio ritrovato, 1759-1761, Rome, 1986.
[2] Inv. 1936,0509.61. A pale counterproof after a counterproof of this drawing was in a Parisian private collection when it was published in 1988, see P. Rosenberg, Fragonard, exhib. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, fig. 1.
[3] T. Pignatti and F. Pedrocco, 'Veronese', Milan, 1995, vol. 1, no. 101, ill.
[4] P. Rosenberg and B. Brejon De Lavergnée, 'op. cit.', p. 245.
[5] See inv. F.1970.03.129a-c.D; F.1970.03.130.D-F.1970.03.138.D.
[6] See P. Stein, ‘Fragonard and the Abbé Saint-Non’, in Fragonard. Drawing Triumphant. Works from New York Collections, 'exhib. cat'., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016, p. 86.
[7] P. Stein, op. cit., p. 53.
[8] P. Stein, 'op. cit.', p. 87.
[9] 'ibid.', no. 7, ill.; inv. 1987.239
[10] P. Stein, 'op. cit.', p. 48.

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