As the creator of some of the most memorable erotic imagery of the eighteenth 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 in his lifetime, and Bachaumont's famous barb that Fragonard 'was content to distinguish himself in the boudoirs and dressing rooms' of Paris addressed not the artist's morals, but his decision to work for lucrative private commissions rather than contribute to the biennial Salon.
Dans les Blés ('in the Cornfield') is precisely the sort of boudoir picture to which Bachaumont referred: a dynamically designed, brilliantly coloured, masterfully painted confection made for the private market, which the artist conceived and executed with unrivalled energy, originality and bravura. It was this panache that Bachaumont regretted was missing from the ponderous history paintings that dominated the Salon, and the critic could hardly forgive Fragonard for turning his genius away from 'official' painting and devoting it instead to what he regarded as 'bonbons' for rich connoisseurs. In fact, it was in such paintings that Fragonard found his true calling. While his few, early history paintings - Psyche showing her sisters Cupid's presents (c. 1753; London, The National Gallery) and the monumental Coresus and Callirhoe (Salon of 1765; Paris, Louvre) - surpass anything produced by his contemporaries in the Academy. It is Fragonard’s intimate, small-scale ‘boudoir’ pictures that are his most original and lasting contribution to the history of art and culture. In cabinet pictures such as Dans les Blés, The Swing (fig. 1; 1767; London, Wallace Collection), Useless Resistance (c. 1775; Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), ‘La Gimblette’ (fig. 2; c. 1775; Munich, Alte Pinakothek), and The New Model (c. 1778; Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André), Fragonard almost single-handedly created the imagery through which we understand the sensual, libertine world of aristocratic Paris in the final years of the Ancien Régime; in this, his only equals are Mozart in opera, Beaumarchais in theatre and Cholderlos de Laclos in literature.
Although Dans les Blés appears in every comprehensive study of Fragonard’s paintings since Georges Grappe’s seminal study of the artist was published in 1913, it has only rarely been on public view (last in 1955) and has never been reproduced in colour, remaining, as a result, little-known and somewhat under-appreciated. In fact, it is a masterpiece of the artist’s full maturity and one of the greatest and most richly conceived paintings of the late Rococo period in French art. Set in the midst of a field of sun-dappled shafts of corn, Fragonard depicts a mischievous country boy and a pretty shepherdess tussling on the ground in the first stages of a secret amorous encounter. The girl smiles up at her eager swain, pulling a blue-ribboned straw hat off his head with a bold swing of her arm, her creamy breasts peeking out above a tight corset, as she lifts her salmon-pink silk dress up over her thighs. Her head rests upon her young lover’s left leg as he enthusiastically gazes upon her beauty from behind her. Her dramatic rightward swing finds a visual counterpoint in the left-moving reach of his arm, and the two figures seem to almost shoot past each other in a remarkably dynamic, contrapuntal design. So ardent seems their passion, and so quick their movements, that they have knocked over the basket of flowers she had been gathering, and even the towering shafts of corn appear to tremble and sway at the couple’s fervent propulsion.
The central image of the playfully wrestling couple was a favourite of Fragonard’s throughout the 1770s, and it reappears in several of his most successful boudoir paintings, notably in the various versions of The Useless Resistance (the finest of which are in Stockholm, Nationalmuseum fig. 3; and San Francisco, The Fine Arts Museums). In one, a young couple in bed are entwined in an embrace while the smiling girl feigns to push her lover away from her; in the other, a young woman playfully pummels a boy, hidden in the sheets, with a bed pillow; in neither case is her resistance especially convincing. Indeed, a hearty and equal embrace of sexual delight in both the male and female participants characterises most of Fragonard’s erotic scenes. On but a single occasion does Fragonard depict the darker undercurrent of sensual desire: in the famous masterpiece of c. 1778, ‘Le Verrou’ (or The Bolt) in the Louvre, a muscular seducer dressed in nothing but his undergarments slips closed a bolt to lock the bedroom door as a terrified and despairing woman hopelessly struggles to resist his violent advances. Aside from this exceptional work, Fragonard’s vision of sexual engagement is altogether mutual, in which men and women explore each other’s bodies, giving and receiving pleasure in equal measure, with common enthusiasm and unity of purpose. It is an appealingly modern vision of physical love between equals, and it endows many of Fragonard’s bedroom scenes with a sexual candour that is still refreshing, more than two centuries later.
It is the frankness, honesty, and joie de vivre of Fragonard’s depiction of his young lovers in Dans les Blés that lifts it above the smutty innuendo that informs the erotic works of Fragonard’s lesser contemporaries such as Lavrience, Mallet and Baudouin. It is also the unparalleled mastery of Fragonard’s painting technique, unequalled by any other French painter of his era, which elevates this and other boudoir scenes into the realm of high art. The shimmering palette of opalescent whites, rosy pinks, sky blues and straw yellows; the ingenuity of Fragonard’s dynamic composition; the warm, enveloping lighting so reminiscent of Rembrandt; and the virtuoso brushwork that could easily be mistaken for that of Manet or Morisot a century before the Impressionist movement was founded, all place Dans les Blés on a level of artistic achievement that precludes even the slightest suggestion of vulgarity.
Fragonard was a great student of the Old Masters, and in Dans les Blés he looked back a century to one of the works of his favourite artists, Rembrandt, not only for its striking effects of light, but for inspiration with his composition. A rare etching of 1646 by Rembrandt, The Monk in the Cornfield (fig. 4; New York, The Morgan Library and Museum), depicts a monk wearing the habit of a Trappist while fornicating with a woman in the protection of a cornfield; Rembrandt’s conception of the high field with its bending, enclosing shafts of corn clearly provided Fragonard with the central idea for his painting. It is interesting to note that Fragonard’s work is far more joyous and tender than the great Dutch master’s tiny but brutal print.
The present painting is undated, and Georges Wildenstein believed it to be among the artist’s earliest independent works, dating it to c. 1748-1752. However, more recent authorities have tended to place it in a considerably more mature phase of his career, with Jean-Pierre Cuzin dating the painting to 1770, and Pierre Rosenberg giving it a slightly wider berth, c. 1770-1773. This later dating is more convincing on stylistic grounds, as the handling of the draperies in Dans les Blés is strikingly reminiscent of the manner in which Fragonard rendered the silks and ribbons in the double-portrait known as The Two Sisters (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which is known to have been painted around 1770. Furthermore, the drapery, the eccentrically glowing light effects, and the refined handling of foliage in Fragonard’s famous cabinet picture of 1773-1774, The Good Mother (Private collection, San Francisco) is very closely related to the execution of the similar elements in Dans les Blés.
According to Grappe, the present painting was found in the onetime home of Benoît-Joseph Marsollier, known as Marsollier des Vivetières (1750-1817), the renowned poet, playwright and librettist who is best remembered for having written the one-act drama Nina, ou la Folle par Amour, with music by Nicolas Dalayrac, which premiered on 15 May 1786 at the Salle Favart in Paris and remained steadily in the repertoire throughout the nineteenth century. There is scant evidence to support the notion that the painting was made for Marsollier, and most later commentators have dismissed the tradition, perhaps too casually. Certainly, the earthy wit and theatrical flourish of Dans les Blés would have appealed to an artist who made his name working in the Opéra-Comique. However, the painting’s subsequent history is more securely documented, as it entered the celebrated collections of the Rothschild family.