Fragonard: the Light and Heavy Erotica


He is one of those whose paintings the XIX century Louvre Art School students would choose for target practice (1); and during the XX century his works were decorating paper-cover editions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and even condoms. Makes perfect sense! Together with Poussin, Watteau and Boucher, Fragonard is one of the first French artists to demonstrate us something outside of the rubric of provincial Baroque. Like Watteau, Fragonard is the author of only one painting, and sometimes this is all it takes (2). There is however one more picture by him that unfortunately the Anglo-Saxon Art historians keep at the arm’s length — The Lock.

The discrimination is due to The Lock‘s subject matter, the subject matter that many Art History teachers may find difficult to integrate into their curriculum: we are looking at the rape! And there is nothing frivolous about that; so, how can we treat this as rococo? Let us now step back to Les Liaisons Dangereuses to see if we’ve got it right. There Vicomte de Valmore explains to Marquise Merteuil the complexity of his seduction project: he wants Madame Tourvel to give herself freely; to this Marquise replies that a woman will give herself only if she is taken, “…the man who shows violence where I consent freely flatters me with his passion….” Further in the novel we have another, slightly different and perhaps more accurate description of the situation by Cecil Volange, “I don’t know how it happens: surely I don’t love Monsieur de Valmont, and yet at times it seemed as if I do… Of course this did not prevent me from saying no to him, but it feels like I do not mean what I say….”

What about the formal attributes of the painting? The movemented diagonal composition and the dramatic lighting categorize it as baroque; however, a more detailed examination begs the question: dramatic or melodramatic? The bed that transforms itself into a female body, the two struggling figures that merge into an embrace and dance toward the lock placed too high to be within a reasonable reach, do they suggest a genre scene or an allegory reaching from that apple placed on the night table to the void of a marriage contract that happens to be the original title of the picture? I don’t know. All I know is that this is getting too serious for rococo as well as for my blog .

(1) It was Watteau’s “Embarkation to Cythera” that the art students used for their target practice, but I bet, to assert the new civic virtues, Fragonard would make even a better target.

(2) The Swing by Fragonard is the real darling of all Art History books. (See the previous post.)

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