“Pagan, celebratory, unremittingly carnal but thoroughly imbued with references from the classical past,” Colin B. Bailey’s 1989 assessment of Fragonard’s Fountain of Love applies with equal insight to the artist’s sulphurous and sensual Sacrifice of the Rose. One of at least five surviving paintings of the subject by Fragonard (there are also several related drawings), the present canvas represents a unique and luminous interpretation of one of the artist’s favorite compositions. Indeed, the obituary of the seventy-four year old painter, published in the Journal de Paris on 25 August 1806, noted the passing of a ‘justly admired painter’ of the French School, and cited just three works that justified coupling “the very idea of the Graces with the name Fragonard”: Coresus and Callirhoë (1765; Louvre), The Fountain of Love (1785), and The Sacrifice of the Rose (late 1780s). For his contemporaries, in the final decades of the 18th century, The Sacrifice of the Rose was the artist’s most recognizable and celebrated composition.
Fragonard’s subject is allegorical, but easily understood: a cheerful and smiling Cupid, his wings extended, has captured a young maiden who swoons rapturously in his arms. She has let fall onto an altar the rose of her virginity which is being consumed by Love’s torch. Bathed in a golden light, he lifts her fainting figure as the pair ascend heavenward, a swarm of putti descending, their fluttering forms glimpsed in the phosphorescent glow of a moonbeam. The nature of the setting is undefined – inside or outdoors, it is impossible to determine – and the entire background consists of just shadows and clouds. Fragonard’s unexcelled familiarity with the great works of the Old Masters resonates throughout his composition. The dramatic chiaroscuro and vaporous sfumato of the Sacrifice and the erotic abandon of its heroine reveals the painting’s obvious debt to Correggio’s sublime masterpiece, Jupiter and Io (c. 1530; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), while the sexual awakening that overcomes her has been compared to the spiritual ecstasy of Bernini’s Saint Theresa (c. 1650; Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), since the idea was first posited by the Goncourt brothers in the 1870s. Even the putti who descend on a beam of light breaking through the clouds derive from Rembrandt’s Holy Family with Angels (1645; The State Hermitage, St. Petersburg), a painting that Fragonard had copied in his youth when it was in the Crozat collection. The loss of virginity and revelation of love’s ecstasies have rarely been portrayed as memorably, or poetically, as in Fragonard’s brilliantly conceived and deeply meditated Sacrifice of the Rose.
The composition is one of a group of four allegorical subjects painted by Fragonard in the 1780s in which he forged a new style and approach to depicting themes of love and erotic pleasure: in all of them, classicized and sculptural figures of chilly marmoreal grace are warmed by vaporous clouds of golden chiaroscuro and illuminated in an otherworldly, sepulchral glow. In addition to The Sacrifice of the Rose, there is the famous Fountain of Love (fig. 1; 1785; at least three autograph versions are known: in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; The Wallace Collection, London; and the Ed Snider Collection); The Vow to Love (1780; Private collection, New York; Louvre, Paris; and a wash drawing in the Cleveland Museum of Art); and The Oath to Love (c. 1780; Rothschild collection, Buckinghamshire; Musée Fragonard, Grasse), all similarly rendered in Fragonard’s new, hothouse manner, in which the artist imbues neoclassicism with a passion and intensity not found in the bloodless canvases of Vien and the first generation exponents of the neo-Greek style.
The five known versions of The Sacrifice of the Rose reveal an evolution in Fragonard’s development of his theme. The earlier versions -- including the present painting – differ so significantly from the final ones that, as Andrei Molotiu has noted (loc. cit.), “they should be viewed as independent compositions in their own right”. The first of the group seems to be a painting -- formerly in the Marcille, Walferdin and Wildenstein collections, but long unseen – that has been considered an oil sketch, but appears to be a finished version of Fragonard’s earliest conception of the subject. A superb drawing in washes in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts matches this painting exactly, and in both painting and drawing, Cupid’s torch sets burning the maiden’s flower while she still holds it in her hand. While graceful, this version of the subject is less sensual and emotionally intense then later renderings.
The present painting would seem to represent the next stage in the evolution of the composition. Here the setting is darker and more mysterious while the couple – their bodies now intimately intertwined – is more brilliantly lit from above. The final iteration of Fragonard’s composition, followed with only the smallest variations in all three of the remaining versions (fig. 2; Lynda and Stewart Resnick Collection, Beverly Hills; Collection Hélène and Jean-François Costa, Musée Fragonard, Grasse; Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, Buenos Aires) is more sculptural in its articulation and portrays the maiden only half-fainting, her swooning body supported by Cupid on her right and a flying putto on her left. As Fragonard repeated this version of the composition at least three times, it was presumably his last and definitive representation of the subject. It was this version that was engraved by Henri Gérard (Marguerite Gérard’s brother) in 1790 for the Société des Amis des Arts, providing a terminus post quem for the composition (as well as the title by which it is known to this day). We can presume that the present painting, representing an earlier iteration of the subject, predates the engraving by several years, and should probably be considered a work of around 1785.
Fragonard’s response to Antiquity in these later paintings was part of a general rediscovery in France (and throughout Europe) of classical art and culture – The Fountain of Love, after all, was painted in the same year as David’s Oath of the Horatii. And Fragonard could be as learned an antiquarian as David: the altar in The Sacrifice of the Rose, which Fragonard first painted twenty years earlier in The Swing (1767; The Wallace Collection), was accurately copied from an actual Roman antiquity, a circular cinerarium formerly in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. But Fragonard’s response to Antiquity was also filtered through contemporary philosophical and literary attitudes toward the idea of romantic passion that were wide-spread in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), with its vision of an irrational, all-consuming love, writers, philosophers and poets of the pre-Romantic era were increasingly preoccupied with heightened passions and levels of ardor which, through their intensity, led to states of emotional abandon and transport. The Goncourts recognized the parallels between the iconography and atmosphere of Fragonard’s late allegories and the literature of the pre-Romantic writers of the 1770s and 1780s when they observed, “Thus, the Sacrifice of the Rose: a hint of Saint Theresa, in a scene worthy of Parny!”, referring to the work of the contemporary French poet Evariste de Parny (1753-1814). Recently, Molotiu, in particular, has elucidated the associations between Fragonard’s allegories and the writings of Claude-Joseph Dorat (1734-1780), Joseph-Marie Loaisel de Tréogate (1752-1812) and Rousseau, among others.
Significantly, Nicolas Lesur last year discovered a copy of a book of erotic poems from Antiquity by Anacreon, Sappho, Catullus and others, translated by the Hellenist poet Julien-Jacques Moutonnet-Clairfons (1740-1813) and published in a deluxe edition in 1773 with illustrations by Charles Eisen. The illustrations were engraved by Jean Massard, who presented this copy to Fragonard for his own library, and it carries the hand-written dedication on its inside cover “Pour Mr J.H. Fragonard/ excellen peintre/ Massard/ 1773”. The darkly erotic poetry of Anacreon (582-485 B.C.) has long been suspected of playing a powerful influence on the creation of Fragonard’s late allegories, as on the paintings of the next generation of French artists, including Girodet, Gros, Gérard, Prud’hon and the entire school of Anacreontic painting in France in the years immediately after the Revolution – and the discovery of this volume seems to confirm the ancient poet’s direct impact. Unbridled passion, as it is found in Fragonard’s The Sacrifice of the Rose, or in Baron Gros’s Sappho Leaping from the Rock of Leucatus (1801; Musée Baron Gros, Bayeux) or Prud’hon’s Abduction of Psyche (fig. 3; 1808; Louvre, Paris), is a disruptive and uncontrollable force. As Molotiu has observed, “the early Romantic passion that took over young men and women in the last years of the Ancien Régime translated itself into revolutionary fervor only a few years later.”
The present painting has a distinguished history, having featured in the first major exhibition of 18th-century French paintings held in Paris at the Galerie Martinet. In bringing together hundreds of paintings, mostly from private collections, this seminal event introduced the art of the Ancien Régime to a new audience that, by and large, had never seen it. Fragonard’s modern reputation was born there, largely through the inclusion of numerous masterpieces from the collection of Hippolyte Walferdin (1795-1880), a physicist and liberal who held a seat in the National Assembly. He collected modern art, notably that of Géricault, but he was also devoted to the works of Fragonard, and by the time of his death in 1880, he held the greatest collection of the artist’s works ever assembled: over 700 drawings and 80 paintings, including the present Sacrifice of the Rose, as well as The Fountain of Love (The Wallace Collection, London), and The Vow to Love (Louvre, Paris).