Fragonard did make one or two other drawings with somewhat similar subjects, notably the Ariosto Inspired by Love and Folly, in Besançon2, and the Hommage à Gluck (formerly with Cailleux, Paris)3, but those works are both more formal and self-consciously scholarly than this. Whereas Gluck and Ariosto both sit, rather stern-faced, at their desks, the former looking reverently up at the busts of his intellectual heroes, the latter seemingly in conversation with a pair of amiable putti representing the sources of his inspiration, the present drawing is much more personal and intense: the central figure is none other than the painter himself, theatrically slumped back before his blank sketchbook, his hand melodramatically clasping his head as he searches his innermost soul for inspiration.
Help is at hand, however, in the form of the classic personification of the art of painting, hovering to the right of the composition, a figure that seems to refer, symbolically as much as iconographically, to Fragonard’s formal, academic training under Boucher and Natoire. But much closer to our tormented hero is another figure, a ghastly harpy who flies right in front of his neglected work station, symbolising his failure to find inspiration. Rather faintly drawn in the top part of the composition are various dream-like motifs familiar from Fragonard’s paintings – cupid as a jester, the head of a cow, a dove and an owl flying close to each other – while in the foreground, like a Shakespearian ‘fool’ providing wise commentary on the whole narrative, sits a large, brooding cat.
The handling of the wash and the way in which it is combined with strongly applied lines of black chalk suggests this drawing dates from the 1760s, prior to Fragonard’s second trip to Italy in 1773-4. Thereafter, even though his chiaroscuro effects are perhaps even more dramatic, the tonality of the wash itself in Fragonard’s drawings is generally a little lighter, and it is applied in a more modulated way. Assuming, as seems reasonable, that the image is at least partly autobiographical, such a dating would also fit with the fact that this was the period when Fragonard had voluntarily cut himself loose from the structure, guidance and potential for patronage of the Académie, and it was also when he was starting to devise the compositions of the first of his great series of drawings illustrating literary texts, those for the Fables of La Fontaine. Indeed, this image could itself almost be an illustration to one of those fables.
Though recorded and reproduced by Ananoff (see Literature), this witty yet unusually personal drawing has not been seen in public in modern times. If the artist depicted is indeed meant to be Fragonard himself, we know that the outcome was a happy one; he did eventually find unlimited inspiration, and as we study this remarkable, moving drawing, we also see closer to the heart of the restless imagination and unparalleled creative genius of this unique and brilliant artist.
1. W.G. Kalnein and M. Levey, Art and Architecture of the Eighteenth Century in France, Harmondsworth, 1972, p. 178 (quoted by Eunice Williams, Drawings by Fragonard in North American Collections, exhib. cat., Washington/Cambridge MA/New York 1978-9, p. 17)
2. Inv. D. 2862; Ananoff, op. cit., no. 452; see also M. Roland Michel, ‘The Themes of ‘The Artist’ and of ‘Inspiration’ as revealed by some of Fragonard’s Drawings’, advertising supplement to The Burlington Magazine, November 1961
3. Ananoff, op. cit., no. 455
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