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.
The present drawing illustrates Canto VII, verse 22 and describes the moment Ruggiero is led to his bed chamber:
Soon, and much sooner than their wont, was ended
The game at which the palace inmates play:
When pages on the troop with torches tended,
And with their radiance chased the night away.
To seek his bed the paladin ascended,
Girt with that goodly squadron, in a gay
and airy bower, appointed for his rest,
Mid all the others chosen as the best2
Fragonard has perfectly captured the mood of the moment in the story that he has depicted, using quick but spirited strokes to denote the flickering of the candles, setting the atmosphere and indicating that evening has drawn in. The figures of the young boys carrying the torches seamlessly echo the lines, ‘When pages on the troop with torches tended.’ Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey, in the introduction to her study of Fragonard’s Ariosto illustrations, remarks that Italo Calvino described ‘le Roland Furieux’ as 'Le Poème du movement,’ and that Fragonard must have had much the same reaction upon reading the verses of the poem. She says of the series : ‘Du début à la fin une même énergie sous-tend chacune des pages.’3
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.
1. Dupuy-Vachey, op. cit., p. 11
2. Translation by William Stewart Rose (1775-1843); London edition of 1823-31
3. Dupuy-Vachey, op.cit., p. 11
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