This painting first certainly came to the attention of a wider public at the Zurich exhibition of 1955, when it was lent from the Rothschild collections, with the title Nutzlose Verteidigung (Vain Resistance). A more recent file note in the Witt Library in London indicates that prior to this the painting belonged to the well-known collector Georges Bourgarel (1857–1922). Bourgarel was an avid collector of both impressionist and modern paintings as well as Old Master drawings. His collection included, for example, at least one other work by Fragonard, a drawing entitled L’Amour de l’or, today in a private collection.1 This painting by Fragonard was not, however, included in the posthumous sales of his collection held in Paris between June and November 1922.2 It is, however, possible that he may have sold the painting directly to Baron Robert Philippe, for the two men shared a common passion for the works of the modern schools, the latter amassing a notable collection of contemporary art, including works by Picasso, Braque and Chagall.
Traditionally this delightful painting has always been regarded as a youthful work by Fragonard, painted while he was a pupil to François Boucher in Paris between the years 1748–52. Réau was the first to point out that in the general mise-en-scène Fragonard may well have been influenced by Boucher’s painting entitled La Surprise, painted in 1754 for Madame de Pompadour as part of the decoration of the château de Menars. Boucher’s original painting shows a similar scene in which two young children are disturbed amidst a field of wheat by a young reaper. As Boucher’s original was in camaïeu bleu and of oval format, so Fragonard’s inspiration may have stemmed more from Gaillard’s related engraving of rectangular format entitled Les amants surpris (fig. 1), after an original oval from a set of four pastorales by Boucher exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1750 and then in the Perinet collection.3 Here the protagonists are more obviously adult, and the motif of the basket retained. Fragonard’s painting, if indeed derived from this source, dispenses, however, with the intruding reaper and also his dog, and concentrates on the playful (and unobserved) interaction between the young lovers. The young girl, her dress in playful disarray, removes her hat and prepares to cast it aside, to her companion’s obvious delight. The moment is charged, and the expression on her face is not without a certain element of expectation. It was exactly this sort of attention to the moment – when virtue seems to hang in the balance – that Fragonard would later repeat to such success with perhaps his most famous painting, Le verrou, today in the Musée du Louvre, the finished version of which was completed around 1778, but whose design he had begun in drawings and an oil sketch (fig. 2) a few years earlier.4 It is this realisation of the balance between movement and stillness, and between sensuality and grace, that gives Fragonard’s works of this type their extraordinary impact.
It was this seeming familiarity with Boucher’s design which led critics to assign this a dating early in Fragonard’s career. More recently, however, Cuzin has tentatively proposed a later dating to the years of Fragonard’s full maturity around 1770. Even the finest works by Fragonard of the former period, such as the magnificent pair of The Goddess Aurora triumphing over Night (Private collection, Fig. 3)5 and Diana and Endymion (National Gallery of Art, Washington), painted just prior to his departure for Italy in 1755–56, still retain a degree of the influence of the work of Boucher. This is much less evident in the present canvas. By comparison with Les Amants surpris the more freely handled paint and less formal design might indeed suggest Fragonard’s growing independence, which was to be confirmed in his works after his return from Italy in 1761. The facial types and the sinuous forms and contours may be found to some extent in his Three Graces which dates from the late 1760s, and is today in the Musée Fragonard in Grasse.6 Both works anticipate the later La Résistance inutile also known as La surprise (both titles also once used for the present painting) of around 1775 in the National Museum in Stockholm. In the latter Fragonard returns to this theme, with a design composed around two reclining figures similar to that found in the present canvas. By this date it was clear that after his return from Italy Fragonard had increasingly turned away from the grander genres of history painting and – much to the administration’s displeasure – devoted himself to the private market and genre painting.
It is unlikely that Fragonard intended any hidden or implied moral meaning in his subject. For the eighteenth-century connoisseur or collector, the quality of a painting probably depended more on its form than its subject, which is to say less on the moral message it conveyed than on the painter’s technique and the effect it produced. Fragonard’s great achievement in pictures of this type was to create for a cultured private clientele beautiful cabinet works that satisfied this need. Dans les blés, with its beautifully rich colouring and its delicate harmonies – such as the delicate blues in the hat, ribbons and bodice of the girl and the corn flowers themselves – set against the freely brushed rendering of the corn itself, epitomises this technical brilliance, and explains Fragonard’s rapid rise to contemporary acclaim. Few if any of his contemporaries could match his creativity and the richness of his powers of invention. Charles-Paul Landon, writing later of his work, might typically lament his abandonment of the virtues of history painting, but could not help but admire his work and memorably remarked upon his ‘imagination vive et... grande facilité d’exécution... et la grâce d’une touche fine et spirituelle’.7
1 Exhibited Paris, Grand Palais, and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fragonard, 1988, no. 144.
2 The drawings were sold on 15–16 June, the modern paintings on the 26 October and the remaining works, including the Old Masters on the 13–15 November 1922. These include a pastel copy after Fragonard’s Bust of an Old Man by the Comte de Brehan, and a counterproof of the Cypresses at the Villa d’Este now in Besançon.
3 A. Ananoff, François Boucher, Paris 1976, vol. II, pp. 41, no. 341 and p. 130, no. 452, both reproduced.
4 Canvas, 73 x 93 cm. Exhibited Paris and New York 1988, no. 236.
5 Sold New York, Sotheby’s, 31 January 2013, lot 84, $3.35 million.
6 Cuzin 1987, nos 148 and 284.
7 Salon de 1808, Paris 1808, vol. I, p. 8.
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