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Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)

L'Heureux ménage ('The happy household')

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)
L'Heureux ménage ('The happy household')
oil on canvas, circular
13 ½ in. (34.4 cm.) diameter
Charles Axel Guillaumot; (†), Paris, 15 January 1808, lot 10.
Marc Antoine Didot; (†), Paris, 6 April 1825, lot 135.
Comte d’Houdedot; (†), Paris, 9 May 1859, lot 42.
William Salomon; (†), New York, American Art Galleries, 4-7 April 1932, lot 384.
Edwin A. Shewan, New York.
Michael van Buren, New York.
with Wildenstein, New York, where acquired by the present owner.
“Vente de la collection de feu le comte d’Houdedot”, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1860, I, p. 115.
Le Hir, "Vente du comte d’Houdedot”, Journal des Amateurs, 1860, p. 83.
R. Portalis, Honoré Fragonard, Paris, 1889, p. 279.
P. de Nolhac, J.-H. Fragonard, Paris, 1906, p. 127.
E. and J. de Goncourt, L’Art du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 1914, III, p. 334.
Le Hir, “Vente du comte d’Houdedot”, Lotus Magazine, March 1914, pp. 396, 397.
“Salomon Sale”, Art News, 14 April 1923, p. 4.
G. Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard, London, 1960, p. 313, no. 502, also under no. 501.
D. Wildenstein and G. Mandel, L’Opera completa di Fragonard, Milan, 1972, p. 109, no. 524, pl. LIX.
Fragonard (Les Grands Maîtres de la Peinture – 20), Tokyo, 1983, pp. 91, 98, no. 49, pl. 49.
J. Russel, “Domestic Affairs in the Ancien Régime and After”, in The New York Times, 10 May 1987, p. 26.
P. Conisbee, “Exhibition Reviews : New York, French 18th-Century Art”, Burlington Magazine, CXXIX, no. 1017, December 1987, p. 836.
P. Cabanne, Fragonard, Paris, 1987, pp. 130, 131.
J.-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, vie et œuvre : catalogue complet des peintures, Fribourg, 1987, pp. 326-327, no. 345, under no. 346.
P. Rosenberg, Fragonard, Paris, exhibition catalogue, 1987, pp. 426-427, fig. 24.
A. Molotiu, Fragonard's Allegories of Love, Los Angeles, 2007, p. 80, fig. 59.
New York, Gimpel & Wildenstein, Fragonard, 1914, no. 15.
Detroit, Institute of Arts, Loan Exhibition of French Paintings, 2-20 December, 1926, no. 23.
Bern, Kunstmuseum, Fragonard, June–August 1954, no. 43.
Stockholm, National Museum, La douce France, August-October 1964, no. 22.
Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, and Kyoto, Municipal Museum Fragonard, May-June 1980, no. 84.
London, Wildenstein, La Douceur de Vivre : Art, Style and Decoration in XVIIIth Century France, June-July 1983, pp. 28, 57.
New York, Rosenberg and Stiebel, Chez Elle, Chez Lui : At Home in 18th Century France, April-June 1987, no. 27, also under pp. 52-55, fig. 27.

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Lot Essay

As the creator of some of the most memorable erotic imagery of the 18th century, Fragonard was long suspected of practicing a personal libertinage to match his most licentious paintings. But no hint of scandal attached to his name during his lifetime, and the critic Bachaumont’s famous barb that Fragonard “was content to distinguish himself in the boudoirs and dressing rooms” of Paris addressed not the artist’s personal morals, but his decision to work for lucrative private commissions rather than contribute to the biennial Salon. Indeed, the criticism came in August 1769, only two months after Fragonard married Marie-Anne Gérard (1745-1823), a talented miniaturist from his native Grasse, in the church of Saint-Lambert in Paris; the first of their two children, Rosalie, was born six months later. By all accounts, it was a companionable union and Fragonard proved himself a dedicated family man.

Throughout the 1770s and early 1780s, Fragonard produced a series of paintings, drawings and watercolors that depict joyful couples, engaged parents, devoted mothers and large and happy families (including, on occasion, the Holy Family) that seem to reflect the contentment and satisfaction that he derived from his own domesticity. These compositions are remarkable – perhaps unprecedented – for the intimacy, informality and naturalism with which they portray undisguised affection among members of the modern French family.

L’Heureux Ménage (‘The Happy Household’) depicts an aristocratic salon in which a pretty, fashionably dressed young mother kneels on an enormous settee, her contented gaze falling on her rambunctious little son as he flings himself across the lap of his benevolent and playful young father. The scene is opulent: the family wears fine silks and satins tailored in the height of style, the elaborately carved and gilded canapé is upholstered in green damask, an enormous gilt-framed painting on the wall behind them suggests the soaring height of the room they inhabit, and a costly, red-plumed parrot flaps its wings on top of the a cage beside them. Yet Fragonard’s ‘Happy Household’ is nonetheless remarkably intimate and tender in its affect. The mother stands protectively over her family, her body leaning in to her husband’s side, her left hand resting on his shoulder, her right affectionately brushing his arm. He throws back his head, smiling joyously as he playfully wards off his little son’s eager embrace. The child propels himself into his father’s waiting arms in an effort to kiss his face.

It seems likely that the addition of a son to Fragonard’s own ménage may have been a source of inspiration for the painting (figs. 1-3). Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard (1780-1850) – who would grow up to be a painter of success and distinction - was christened in Grasse on 26 October 1780. The apparent age of the clamoring little boy in L’Heureux Ménage – seeming about three or four – coincides almost exactly with Evariste’s age in 1784 when, we can surmise with near certainty, the painting was executed.

Like most of Fragonard’s paintings, L’Heureux Ménage is neither signed nor dated, but a painted oil sketch representing the artist’s first idea for the composition survives (fig. 4, Private collection; formerly in the collection of M. Penard y Fernandez), and is recorded as having been exhibited in the Salon de la Correspondance in November 1783; there seems little doubt that Fragonard’s revised, meticulously finished, final version of the subject – the present painting – would have been produced shortly thereafter. When it was included in the 1783 exhibition, the sketch – then owned by the painter Antoine Vestier, and later by the British portraitist, Sir Thomas Lawrence – was described precisely, as “l’intérieur d’un ménage où l’on voit un père caresser son enfant en présence de la mère, esquisse” ("the interior of a household where we see a father caressing his child in the presence of its mother, sketch").

In addition, stylistic evidence also points to a date for the painting of around 1784. The fashionable costumes are typical of aristocratic clothing in Paris around 1780-1785 and, as Penelope Hunter-Steibel has noted (1987), the settee is executed in a transitional style between Louis XV and Louis XVI, its “carved scrolls recall Rococo but the flow of contours is broken and the carving includes Neo-Classical ornaments like the pine cone finial,” leading her to date the furniture to about 1770. The gilded tone with which Fragonard imbued his palette reflects his life-long love of the great 17th-century Dutch master, Rembrandt, but the meticulous, highly finished handling that he brought to the painting reveals his renewed interest in the 1780s in the works of the 17th-century ‘little Dutch masters’ such as Ter Borch and Metsu. This interest was certainly encouraged by the contemporaneous works of his sister-in-law and pupil, Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837), herself among the most successful painters of the era working in a ‘neo-Dutch’ style.

Yet Fragonard brings to L’Heureux Ménage a unique energy and visual imagination that Marguerite Gérard could never equal. Its surface handling is smooth and polished, but its shimmering lighting effects make the figures seem to glow from within, as if illuminated by their own joy and contentment rather than from mere rays of sunlight peaking in from between window shutters. As Pierre Rosenberg has observed, “Fragonard’s vision is dynamic; it cannot function without expressing the movement, exuberance, and impulse that give life to the figures…” In L’Heureux Ménage, the very composition abounds in the exuberance to which Rosenberg referred, its round format further destabilized by the dynamic diagonal movement of the compact figural group that seems to shoot through it, threatening almost to knock the composition off axis. Fragonard had used a similarly dramatic lighting devise to great effect several years earlier, in his famous painting Le Verrou (fig. 5, ‘The Bolt’; c. 1778, Louvre) and its magnificent oil sketch, where a powerful diagonal shaft of blinding light focuses all attention on the seducer’s fateful gesture.

While the mood of domestic satisfaction that pervades L’Heureux Ménage reflects, no doubt, the happy home life of the artist, it also speaks directly to a wide-spread campaign in the later decades of the 18th century to increase the French population (incorrectly thought to have been in decline) and improve its moral and physical health by promoting the virtues of maternity, domesticity and enlightened education. Artists, writers, doctors, philosophers and politicians threw their support behind this effort to modernize methods of childrearing with the goal of advancing the health of the people and the vitality of the State. The most enduring testament of the call for a return to naturalism centering on family life and the proper education of children is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s classic treatise, Émile, ou de l’education (1762), a controversial bestseller in its day that presented a radically new view of the relationships of husbands and wives, parents and children, based in part on the psychological and behavioral insight that adult character develops out of childhood experience. Rousseau’s novel encouraged well-to-do mothers to raise their children themselves, thereby inviting close, mutually affectionate bonds from the earliest ages.

Although the theme of the ‘Good Mother’ could on occasion be found in Chardin’s paintings from as early as the 1730s, its popularity much increased in the 1760s, 1770s and 1780s, when a number of artists took it up with regularity – notably Greuze, but also Étienne Aubry and Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié, as well as Marguerite Gérard -- and expanded it to include the allied, but broader subject of the ‘Devoted, or Attentive Family’. Fragonard, however, made these themes something of a specialty, from Maternal Kisses (Private collection; Cuzin, op. cit., no. 197), to The Visit to the Nurse (National Gallery of Art, Washington, and other versions; Cuzin, op. cit., no.123-125), The Happy Family (fig. 6, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and other versions; Cuzin, op. cit., nos. 311-314), The Good Mother (fig. 7, Private collection, and other versions; Cuzin, op. cit., nos. 261-262) and the present ‘Happy Household’, as well as collaborations with Marguerite Gérard, such as the pendants The First Steps of Infancy and The Beloved Child (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge; Cuzin, op. cit., nos. 409-410), to biblical images including The Education of the Virgin (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and other versions; Cuzin, op. cit., nos. 273-275).

L’Heureux Ménage is a small masterpiece that makes for an almost perfect confluence of the art of Fragonard, the philosophy of Rousseau and the quest for national rebirth that lay at the heart of the Revolution. It effortlessly embodies the Enlightenment’s ambition to reform marriage and parenting, concepts which govern our domestic relationships to this day. “The attraction of domestic life is the best antidote for bad morals,” Rousseau wrote in a passage of Émile that the present painting virtually illustrates. “The bother of children, which is believed to be an importunity, becomes pleasant. It makes the father and mother more necessary, dearer to one another; it tightens the conjugal bond between them. When the family is lively and animated, the domestic cares constitute the dearest occupation of the wife and the sweetest enjoyment of the husband.”

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