The sheer number of drawings that survive highlights the amount of time that Fragonard must have dedicated to these compositions, and the important role they clearly played in his later career. Generally dated to the 1780s, the stimulus for illustrating the verses of this poem still remains a mystery, as the drawings were never engraved. Originally written for the Duke of Este at the court of Ferrara in the early 16th Century, the poem underwent a revival in popularity two centuries later, when several lavishly illustrated editions of Ariosto’s text were published. It is therefore perfectly possible that Fragonard made his drawings in connection with another such publishing project, and Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey has suggested that they might have been commissioned by the artist’s patron Bergeret de Grancourt or his son, Pierre Jacques. Yet at the same time, the drawings are all extremely freely executed, to the point that it is hard to imagine how they could ever have been used as the basis for prints, for which much more precise and easily read designs would have been more appropriate.
This drawing illustrates Canto X, verse 50 where Ruggiero stands at the helm of his boat and raises his magic shield towards the sailors of Alcine, dazzling them with light and blinding them. Fragonard sets the scene by illustrating the boat emerging from the lower left of his composition, oars in motion as it glides across the seas towards the sailors. Fragonard's blend of chalk and wash simulate rough seas and add to the sense of bewilderment and suspense. In the centre of the composition is the magic shield from which Fragonard draws chalk lines to imitate rays of light which are aimed at the sailors.
The combination of chalk and wash, which Fragonard employed throughout all the drawings in this series, creates a sfumato effect, adding to the romance of the poem and giving each work a certain fantastical and dream-like quality. The drawings for Ariosto’s poem may remain an enigmatic part of Fragonard’s graphic oeuvre but they are undeniably some of the artist’s most expressive and passionate studies.
Hippolyte Walferdin (1795-1880), the first recorded owner of the Ariosto drawings, was an important French collector who owned many works by Boucher, Watteau, Greuze and Prud'hon, but had a special affinity for Fragonard.
See also lot 53 for another drawing from this series.
1. Dupuy-Vachey, op. cit., p. 11
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