Episode 33: Jean-Honoré Fragonard's “The Desired Moment” (c. 1770)
A disclaimer. This episode of The Lonely Palette acknowledges the existence of exceedingly saucy 18th century sex. Little ears have been forewarned.
VOICE 1: Okay. That’s some saucy business. [laughs]
VOICE 2: It’s a painting of two figures on some kind of bed. They are completely enveloped in these flowing draperies or bedclothes. It’s very brown, everywhere except the middle where there seems to be a spotlight showing on the two figures who are locked in a passionate embrace.
VOICE 3: Early morning. Sunlight’s coming through. Very soft fabrics. Very sumptuous, lots of curves. Combination of detail but not detail.
VOICE 4: It looks pretty erotic. You know, as they say, it’s pulsating with passion.
VOICE 5: She’s nude—
VOICE 4: She’s nude, yeah, that’s a good point, yeah, that’s one of the good points—
VOICE 5: …and I think the colors are mimicking the passion that they feel, which is different, it’s more natural and different from the usual sort of cautious and pretending to resist. There’s no resistance here. It’s all mutual and enjoying sex.
VOICE 4: Yeah, no resistance, that’s a really good point. [laughs]
VOICE 5: Le jeux sont faits! [laughs]
VOICE 2: Um, although the passion, to me, is kind of… I don’t know. It just… too sugary, it’s artificial. It’s like aspartame. [laughs]. The aspartame of passion.
VOICE 6: There’s an edible quality to it – it looks like it was made out of whipped cream and that it was the icing on some really raunchy birthday cake.
VOICE 7: There’s the white of the sheets and the white of the woman. Now, the boy is not that white, his hand is much darker than her, but she is just the color of the cream you pour in your coffee. And her hair is not much darker.
VOICE 6: It’s like they grew out of the bedclothes, like the bedclothes came to life. They’re so fluffy, like they’re made out of down or something? You know, like cream puff kind of lightness. So his arm will never get tired of holding her because she’s probably full of helium.
VOICE 8: He gives the foot a little ballet feeling to it, the way it’s arched.
VOICE 6: A carpal pedal spasm of excitement! [laughs]
VOICE 6: It’s funny how juvenile he makes sex look, like the boy looks like he’s about seven, the girl has the butt of a thirty-year-old, but otherwise looks quite young; it’s all so rosy and fresh and new.
VOICE 8: I really get a strong feeling, the more I stand here, that she is helping him become—
VOICE 1: The education of the adolescent.
VOICE 8: …yeah, I really do. He feels adolescent; he looks adolescent. She seems – the whole body position – she seems to know what to do in a way that he seems more hesitant.
VOICE 1: I always have mixed reactions to Fragonard. He really is sort of soft-core, really. You know, his motive seems to be titillation, often, but he’s an elegant painter. He really knows what he’s doing, and he goes there immediately.
Poor Rococo. It just can’t get no respect. Even if you don’t know anything else about the Rococo style, you know that. I mean, how could it ever hold its own in the face of the era of political revolutions that came after it, the seriousness with which Enlightenment Philisophes held their intellectual and moral principles of equal representation, the rights of man, and rationality that would become the touchstone of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century? How could it ever defend to Rousseau or Diderot or Thomas Jefferson the simple joys of a dainty pastel ceramic or a suggestive grape?
Well, it couldn’t. Which is why, when any art history textbook talks about Rococo, it does so with a derisive sniff, even in written form. It will be described, ostensibly objectively, as exuberantly decorative, excessively ornamental, characterized by an abundance - no, make that an overabundance – of curves that draw the eye in all directions. Even the name itself – named, as ever, by dismissive critics – is a marriage of gaudy ornament, combining the Portuguese word barroco, an irregularly shaped pearl – and the most likely naming source for the entire Baroque period – and rocaille, a French decorative motif that interlaced artificial seashells with acanthus leaves and was all the rage in 18th century aristocratic gardens. It’s a style characterized by pastels, arabesques, lighthearted moods, flirtations, winks. And we talk a lot in art history about art being contemporary to its own time, and unaware of what was coming next. And this especially matters when it comes to art that we think is trivial, that we think is dismissible. The art, and the history, that immediately followed Rococo was French Neoclassicism, a movement characterized, of course, by the return to the self-important Greco-Roman ideals of rationality, democracy, and law, and illustrated by stone columns, Greek statues, and solemn, toga-clad revolutionaries. Rococo, meanwhile, with its devotion to pleasure, frivolity, and sensuality, was the artistic equivalent to if a sentient mound of whipped cream covered in sugared violets was capable of having its nipples tweaked. But to that end, we can’t forget that the champions of the Rococo style didn’t know what we now know, which was that they were a product of its own time, a time very close to its end, and that many of them were about to find themselves on the business end of a guillotine.
And this is why Rococo is worth our attention. It’s a time capsule. It’s useful to us, because, from a historical perspective, the story of Rococo is a story of the final days of the Ancien Regime, that is, the absolute French monarchy that was about to be bloodily overturned by the French Revolution. The Rococo style was the favored art of the French aristocracy, having emerged in the early 1700s as a reaction to the formality of Louis the 14th and his court at Versailles, and subsequently flourished after his death in 1715, under the reign of Louis the 15th – a period marked by the very decadence that would become the proverbial nail in the coffin of the Regime. Nobles, finally able to escape the court at Versailles, started building elegant and fashionable townhomes back in Paris, complete with smaller rooms that necessitated smaller art objects. Art for the home meant art that could be shared with a private few, with taste dictated only by preference and constrained only by purse strings. So of course the style favored by the jobless, carefree aristocracy is going to be a movement devoted purely to enjoying the superficial pleasures of life: the witty conversation, the cultivated artifice, the playful sensuality, the who’s zooming who. And also of course, given the privacy of the home, those zooms, through the cheeky wink of innuendo, will now acknowledge the existence of sex.
And, you guys, there is a lot of sex in these paintings. And it’s not even sexuality – which has an air of utility to it – so much as eroticism, sensuality, foreplay, the origination of “sex as we know it,” as cultural historian Thomas Laqueur wrote. You simply can’t talk about Rococo without getting into the bedsheets. However – and yes, I realize this makes me a total tease – let’s actually hold off on diving into this piece of Rococo for now. Because the Rococo style evolved throughout the 18th century, and was actually seen as the final phase of the Baroque art that had been evolving since the 16th century. So give me at least a chance to buy you dinner first, that is, give a quick overview of this evolution before we can fully appreciate, as it were, this desired moment.
We’re not going to go too deeply into the two hundred or so years that can be defined as the Baroque period, other than to broadly say that it was a period of sensual, emotional, expressive, and slightly off-kilter art that lived between the rigid wet blanket bookends of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, and late 18th century Neoclassicism – basically a revival of the same classicism revived by the Renaissance in the first place. And the transition period from the clarity and symmetry of the High Renaissance towards the expressiveness of the Baroque was a nebulous little period known as Mannerism. It’s worth mentioning Mannerism because this is where we start to see the breakdown of the almost scientific naturalism of the Renaissance – think back to how Leonardo labored over those perfect mouth muscles around Mona Lisa’s smile – in favor of the privileging of emotional, dynamic expressiveness that would come to define Baroque art, and, later on, Romantic painting and everything expressive that followed. In other words, Mannerism taught us that the painting doesn’t have to make perfect visual sense as long as it gets its message across. Take, for example, “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time,” by the Italian Mannerist artist Angelo Bronzino, from around 1544. Visually, it’s a mess, a hodge-podge of allegory and symbolism, with bodies contorted in impossible directions, creepily elongated necks, and an adolescent Cupid son tenderly tweaking his mother Venus’s nipple, which, of course, is the first thing every art history student remembers this painting. This painting ushers us into the Baroque – its energy, its sensual concentration the body itself. And you might remember that we looked very briefly at the Baroque period in episode 8, when we discussed Richard Serra and his fascination with ovals, that is, circles flattened and elongated with dynamic energy. Every figure in the Baroque period is infused with this same dynamic energy, this sense that the action is ongoing and we’re simply passing through. We see this in Bernini’s sculpture of David from 1624, caught mid-slingshot, especially when we compare it to the infinitely more static version by Michelangelo a century earlier. We see this in Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, from 1603, where we can practically reach for the corner of the wooden platform, his lifeless toes. Even Baroque architecture undulates with energy, its convex and concave facades pulsing as though they have a heartbeat beneath the surface.
The transition from the dramatic monumentality of the Baroque to the more playful intimacy of the Rococo style happened loosely, with no discernable friction point, over the course of Louis the 14th’s reign. Artists began to study the work of the freer Counter-Reformation Flemish painters who offered a much-appreciated alternative to the weighty formalism of Versailles. The first French Rococo painter is considered to be Jean-Antoine Watteau, who borrowed heavily from the 17th century Flemish Baroque painter Paul Rubens, who was known for his fluid brushwork and juicy ladythighs. Watteau originated the subject in painted known as the fete galante, or elegant outdoor festivity, like we see in one of his most famous paintings, “Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera” from 1717. In it, beautifully-dressed couples, surrounded by cupids and lush foliage, have romantic misadventures on the mythical island of Cythera. The setting is plainly idyllic, an imagined utopia where silks and satins are impervious to grass stains. There is no expectation here that we’re looking at landscape painting, or that we need to get to the heart of this landscape’s emotional truth, as we’ve seen in Baroque art up until this point. Instead, this is a painting of purely of people and their pleasure, which would become the aristocratic style du jour of the next half century.
Which brings us to the arrival of Jean-Honore Fragonard. Fragonard was born in 1732, into a Rococo style already in full swing, pun obviously intended. He displayed artistic talent at a young age – so much so in fact that he was taken under the mentorship of the celebrated Rococo artist Francois Boucher at the age of 18, and awarded the Prix de Rome – a highly-coveted French scholarship for young artists to study in Italy – at the age of 20. Fragonard was famous for painting with both exuberance and eroticism, intimacy and intrigue, and his most famous painting, “The Swing,” from around 1767, is a perfect example of all of this. You’ve seen it on every tea towel: a young woman on a velvet swing, a veritable poof of pink, being pushed by a cuckholded older man, while a pink-cheeked younger man waits in the bushes beneath her, totally looking up her skirt, and she totally knows it. Her dainty shoe flies gaily through the air, while a stone cupid looks on, finger to his lips, keeping their secret. And this is Fragonard in a nutshell: the secret trysts, the coquettish mugging for the audience, the aristocratic excess, all painted with a loose, vibrant style and candy-coated pastel palette.
But there’s also something with a little more substance going on beneath the superficiality. Rococo paintings in general gave women an astonishing amount of erotic agency. As we see here, female sexuality is treated as a norm, a full and eager participant in the game, with plenty of paintings that recognize its existence in a wonderfully holistic way. For one thing, we see examples of women masturbating, allowed to enjoy sexuality on their own and independent of a man, if not his gaze upon the canvas. A particularly racy example is Fragonard’s “Young Girl Playing with her Dog,” from around 1768, which depicts a flushed young girl her her bougie pup, his tale tickling her nether regions, against a background that one can only be, in Lebowskian terms, commended as strongly vaginal. But more significant of this holistic sexuality, I think, is that mothers, too, are allowed to be get in on the action. We have examples of them garnering a sense of sensual, almost erotic pleasure from being touched by her children, as we see in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “The Beloved Mother” from 1769. It’s not really all that far from Venus and Cupid and that tweaked nipple – the remarkably progressive blurring of boundaries between Madonna and whore, the celebration of the sensuality of touch, and the allowance of a woman’s body in both the creation, and the tending to, of children.
Sexuality between lovers, meanwhile, returns us to the idea of the game. And in this game, on balance, every player is on equal footing – it just depends on the dynamics of that particular moment, that particular canvas. A woman in a painting from this period could just as easily be the seducer as the seduced, as we see Boucher’s saucily-titled, “Are They Thinking About the Grape” from 1747, which depicts a shepherdess in full-on seduction mode, holding the titular grape up to the expectant mouth of a youthful and inexperienced shepherd and, spoiler, no, they are not thinking about the grape. But equal footing is, as we’re keenly aware of today, a murky concept at best. I quote Janelle Monae, by way of a misattribution to Oscar Wilde: everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power. And in this power struggle, there are, presumably, winners and losers, dominants and submissives. And what Rococo painters, Fragonard especially, seems to be saying, is that we should assume that everyone is ultimately left satisfied, even if we walk in in a moment in the action that seems to, shall we say, blur the lines of consent. Fragonard was a big fan of presenting the struggle, of watching the sexual dynamics play themselves out for the benefit of a higher erotic purpose. Take his painting from 1770, “The Feigned Resistance,” which depicts a woman coquettishly turning away from her lover, but exposed and aroused enough to tell us to butt out, she’s fine. But his more famous “The Bolt” from around 1777 is a little more ambiguous, and this turnabout suddenly makes this all feel much more third rail. The title refers to the bolted lock a man reaches to close, half undressed, his arm secured around a woman struggling against him, and reaching for the same bolt for, we assume, the opposite reason. And we’re perfectly within our rights to ask: how are we meant to experience this painting? There’s much more of a power differential going on here than someone withholding a grape. And it’s been explained as a moment of violent passion – foreplay, role-playing, not rape, exactly, or at least not culminating in rape, because Rococo painting in general leads us to believe that she’s most likely into this. But the fact remains that when we look at this painting, we don’t know if she’s resisting because she is genuinely repelling the attack, or if it too is a kind of feigned resistance, if she’s playing the game. We don’t know if she capitulates out of desire or defeat. And this discrepancy can’t help but leave us a little uneasy, and a little aroused, and we don’t know which feels dirtier.
And this is what makes “The Desired Moment” so unique. When we come to this moment, this desired moment, we’re past the game-playing, arriving, finally, at the act at hand. There’s no cheeky innuendo here, just the mutual consummation of carnal desire. The lovers in this painting are embracing so passionately, they don’t even seem to notice that we’re looking in. This is fairly uncommon in Rococo painting – even if the figures aren’t acutely acknowledging the viewer, you do get the sense that they’re a little performative in their dramatics, thrilled to be caught in the act of whatever romantic entanglement they’ve gotten themselves into. If “The Bolt” captures the moment of dramatic resistance, “The Desired Moment” captures the moment of gentle surrender. This is a moment of mutual satisfaction, even tenderness: her arms are wrapped around his neck, her face is tilted into the kiss, and her fleshy white body seems as squishy and comfortable as the featherbed that cradles it. There’s little ambiguity about whether or not she’s into it. She’s into it. And though his face seems a little under-painted, and the rendering of his hands a little clumsy – I think we need to accept the fact that Donatello has spoiled us forever when it comes to hands depicted with sensitivity and nuance – what is really depicted here is a truth in desire. His exposed shoulder is hot. Her back muscles and the curve of her lower back and the little dimple are gorgeous. This painting is entirely about two people getting it on, and I am here for it.
And the general sense of desire coming off of this painting plays into a somewhat apocryphal statement Fragonard once made, “If I could, I would paint with my bottom.” Art historians believe he was a bit more of a gentleman than belied by the crassness of this statement, but also think that it’s entirely plausible that he did indeed say it, although meaning something a little more profound. He’s approaching sexuality like a horny adolescent would, all appreciative impulse, grateful for the pleasures of the flesh. Fragonard was never one to position himself as the grown-up in the room; he’s not telling us to put it away in public. Instead, his paintings are just as experimental towards sexuality, just as amused by, it as the subjects he depicts. He as a painter is just as driven by biological imperative to capture human sexuality as any sexual being is to experience it.
The Rococo style, and Fragonard himself, couldn’t help but to go out of style as the French Revolution inched closer, and was all but passé as early as 1785, a joke exchanged by the intellectuals of the period, who privileged nobility, not frivolity.And despite Fragonard’s early run of professional luck, he heavily miscalculated, declining a public career as a history painter, to instead to continue to work for his private clientele – many of whom would end up emigrating or killed during the Revolution. Fragonard himself emigrated, only to return to Paris in the early 19th century, his artistic success wiped out, and to die in relative obscurity in 1806, at the age of 74. But his legacy remains, and not just in the loose and expressive brushwork that would later go on to influence the Impressionists, and particularly his grandniece, the Impressionist Berte Morisot. But because you, now, can look at the most trivial, the most dismissible style in western art history, and understand why, and to whom, it mattered. So do it a favor and give it a little wink the next time you walk by. I promise you, no movement will appreciate it more.
"The Desired Moment” is on display in the exhibition “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century” that is currently ongoing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until October 8, 2018.
Special thanks to Wade Roush, Charles Gustine, Lucia and Warren Prosperi, Alice Flahtery, and the intrepid museum-goers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go the The Lonely Palette.com, or follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram, where I regularly post bonus images from each episode, @thelonelypalette, or like us on Facebook, and hey, if you like the show, then don’t you think everyone you know will too? Share us with the world by leaving a rating and a review on Apple podcasts, and show us some love by supporting the show on Patreon. That’s patreon.com/lonelypalette.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, an almost one-year-old collective of idea-driven podcasts. And I want to take a moment and share with you, not an episode from another Hub & Spoke show, but a whole conference that Zach Davis and the Ministry of Ideas team are putting on at the beginning of November. It’s called Sound Education, and it’s going to be an incredible gathering of educational podcasts, including talks by Dan Carlin of Hardcore History, Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace, ur-podcaster Christopher Lydon, and, if I can keep my starstruck-self in check, me. It’s November 2-3 at Harvard University, and you can register at soundeducation.fm. Hope to see you there.