How Fragonard seduces us with his mordern approach to Rococo art

Jean Honore Fragonard. Permanent collection of the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. oil on panel 1770

“The Useless Resistance” is a small oil on panel painting by French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard. It was painted in 1770, year his master François Boucher died. What first comes to mind when contemplating this painting is the strong sense of intimacy; the viewer just entered a young lady’s private apartment and is witnessing a game of love. The painter clearly wants to create a strong intimate seductive atmosphere and make the viewer marveled about the girl’s beauty. While the painting is clearly erotic, Fragonard seems to want it joyful and even innocent.

The painting is small in size, ideal for private viewing in Parisian boudoirs and is a conversation piece. It showcases a pretty, young, playful half nude woman kneeled on her bed offering her round chest to the light. She is erected on the bed and lazily carrying a large pillow with which she is about to strike her sleeping lover. Her figure is monumental, taking up most of the format of the painting, which intensify the intimate atmosphere, as the viewer feels closer to the subject. Her naked flesh is displayed in full light at the center of the painting in a triumphant posture in a pyramid composition. Her lover, on the other end is sleeping in the shadow at the bottom of the bed in the left side of the painting. The viewer can only perceive his upper body, the light only brushing the top of his beautiful curly hair. As the viewer scrutinized the boy a bit longer, one can see that the boy’s hand that initially seemed to be resting on the bed, is actually caressing a cat standing in the shadow in the foreground left corner of the painting suggesting that the boy is only half sleeping or pretending to sleep. The presence of a cat is a symbol of promiscuity. The composition is participative. The boy and cat’ bodies as well as the bed are cut by the canvas which intensify the feeling that the viewer is up close, present in the bedroom. The dark irregular ceiling also seems very close to the woman and descends in a diagonal over her, suggesting that the scene takes place in a very small room under a roof or in an attic. The influence of Caravaggio seems evident as a golden light is descending diagonally on the woman and suggests the presence of a small window in the upper left corner of the painting implying a late afternoon or early evening sunset. The disheveled bed suggests that the lovers have been in the room for a while. While the woman is half naked, the man wears what seems to be a green blue dressing gown.

By choosing such young characters (the man looks more like a boy and the woman has babyish curves and skin) and playing cleverly with the warm light and colors, the painting doesn’t feel vulgar but more peaceful. Fragonard invites the viewer to explore the game of love, subject so popular in 18th century France as Louis XV was a king promoting pleasure and entertainment. However, Fragonard is offering a new take on the fête galante theme. While Watteau and Boucher placed their scenes in idyllic gardens, Fragonard is taking the game of love to a more erotic, more private intimate genre scene. He also gives the female character a central role; she seems more active, more in control of the game.

The creamy light and its effect on the objects is striking, it creates strong shadows not unlike paintings by old Dutch masters like Rembrandt who Fragonard affectionate so much. The way the light affects the naked skin of the courtesan is beautiful, her skin seems so smooth, so fresh. Her flesh is offered to the viewer and the opalescent white of her skin is a small variation from the white of her gown and the bed sheets, with just a hint of pink on her cheeks. One can appreciate Fragonard’s amazing technique of working white on white. He also uses a beautiful chiaroscuro technique on her skin, creating a subtle light and shadow three-dimensional effect. By placing the nude against a dark background with little details, her body is popping out of the picture, again a technique borrowed from baroque artists called tenebrism.

The texture of her dress is also remarkable; one can appreciate the quick alternate application of light and dark brushstrokes that creates the folds of the dress. The painting is very painterly; Fragonard is applying bravura brushstrokes and alternates thick and thin application of paint, which creates interesting textures and depth.

There is an iridescent red drape at the top of the bed inundated with light which is a technique introduced by baroque artists like Rubens to intensify the light effect. Fragonard’s quick brushstrokes added to the numerous diagonals in the painting creates movement. Everything is round, curvy and circular (her chest, her shoulder, her face, the pillow) in the rococo style. The viewer can perceive her gesture; she is about to strike, the pillow leaving a white veil behind.

Fragonard’s joyful freedom, bravura brushstrokes and rich golden earthy palette make this painting utterly modern and succeed in creating an intimate, erotic but lighthearted scene.