(b. 1732, Grasse, d. 1806, Paris)
Fragonard was the son of a haberdasher's assistant. The family moved to Paris about 1738, and in 1747 the boy was apprenticed to a lawyer, who, noticing his appetite for drawing, suggested that he be taught painting. François Boucher was prevailed upon to accept him as a pupil (c. 1748), and in 1752, Fragonard's elementary training completed, Boucher recommended that he compete for a Prix de Rome scholarship, which meant study under the court painter to Louis XV, Carle Van Loo, in Paris. On Sept. 17, 1756, Fragonard set off with other scholarship winners for the French Academy at Rome.
At the academy Fragonard copied many paintings, chiefly by Roman Baroque artists, and, with his friend the French painter Hubert Robert, made numerous sketches of the Roman countryside. When his scholarship ended in July 1759, he was allowed to remain in residence until, in late November, he met a wealthy amateur artist, the Abbé de Saint-Non, who was to become one of his chief patrons. Early in 1760 Saint-Non took Fragonard and Robert on a prolonged tour of Italy, where the two artists studied Italian paintings and antiquities and made hundreds of sketches of local scenery.
In 1761, after returning to Paris, Fragonard exhibited a few landscape paintings and the large Coresus Sacrifices Himself to Save Callirhoe at the Salon, where it was purchased for King Louis XV. Consequently, the artist was commissioned to paint a pendant, or companion piece, granted a studio in the Louvre Palace, and accepted as an Academician. Nevertheless, after 1767 he almost ceased to exhibit at the salons, concentrating on landscapes, often in the manner of the 17th-century Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael (Return of the Herd, Worcester); portraits; and decorative, semierotic outdoor party scenes (The Swing) in the style of Boucher but more fluently painted. His admiration for Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, and a Venetian contemporary, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, emerges in a large series of loosely and vigorously executed heads of old men, painted probably between 1760 and 1767 (Head of an Old Man), followed by a series of portraits (c. 1765-72) in a similar style and in which the sitters were real persons, but their fantastic costumes were emphasized rather than facial expressions.
In 1769 he married Marie-Anne Gérard from Grasse and shortly afterward received the accolade of fashion, when in 1770 he was commissioned by Mme du Barry to decorate her newly built Pavillon de Louveciennes, with four large paintings (Progress of Love, Frick Collection, New York City), and in 1772 he received a somewhat similar commission from the notorious actress Madeleine Guimard. Neither was a success, the Louveciennes paintings probably being rejected as too Rococo for a totally Neoclassical setting.
A journey to the Low Countries perhaps in 1772-73 increased his admiration for Rembrandt and Hals and was reflected in his later portraits. A second visit to Italy followed in 1773-74. As before, he concentrated on drawing picturesque Italian landscape subjects rather than on painting. The return journey was taken through Vienna, Prague, and Germany. On his return to Paris, the family was joined by his wife's 14-year-old sister, Marguerite, with whom Fragonard fell passionately in love. Consequently, he turned his interests toward a new type of subject matter: domestic scenes inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's moral philosophy or romantic novels (The Happy Family) or scenes concerned with children's upbringing, in which his son Évariste (born 1780) frequently figures (The Schoolmistress).
In the last years preceding the French Revolution, Fragonard turned finally to Neoclassical subject matter and developed a less fluent Neoclassical style of painting (The Fountain of Love), which becomes increasingly evident in his later works, particularly the genre scenes executed in collaboration with Marguerite Gérard (The Beloved Child).
Fragonard's art was too closely associated with the pre-Revolutionary period to make him acceptable during the Revolution, which also deprived him of private patrons. At first he retired to Grasse but returned to Paris in 1791, where the protection of the leading Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David obtained for him a post with the Museum Commission, but he was deprived of this in 1797. He spent the rest of his life in obscurity, painting little. His death in 1806 passed almost unnoticed, and his work remained unfashionable until well after 1850.
Fragonard has been bracketed with Watteau as one of the two great poetic painters of the unpoetical 18th century in France. A prodigiously active artist, he produced more than 550 paintings, several thousand drawings (although many hundreds are known to be lost), and 35 etchings. His style, based primarily on that of Rubens, was rapid, vigorous, and fluent, never tight or fussy like that of so many of his contemporaries.
Although the greater part of his active life was passed during the Neoclassical period, he continued to paint in a Rococo idiom until shortly before the French Revolution. Only five paintings by Fragonard are dated, but the chronology of the rest can be fairly accurately established from other sources such as engravings, documents, etc.