FRAGONARD, Jean-Honoré
(b. 1732, Grasse, d. 1806, Paris)

Coresus Sacrificing himself to Save Callirhoe

Oil on canvas, 309 x 400 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The picture shows a tapestry cartoon for the Gobelin factory. The tapestry was never executed. It was thanks to this painting that Fragonard was accepted by the Académie as a 'history painter'. He was soon to abandon this type of subject-matter and devote himself to the pleasant, often frivolous paintings for which he is famous.

When Fragonard tackled the history picture - a rare occasion - it, like his other paintings, was animated by love. The large Corésus sacrificing himself to save Callirhoé, shown at the Salon of 1765, is Fragonard's effort to combine his own tendencies with academic requirements. It is not surprising that he exhibited there only once afterwards; this sort of machine was replaced by brilliant, witty decorations, positive riots of cupids and bathers, kissing lips and torn clothes, which always express love in action. The Corésus is negative love, sublime self-sacrifice, and in effect useless passion. Fragonard docs his best to excite the composition, sending waves of smoky clouds and excited winged figures to fill the space between the two pillars not occupied by the strangely feminine priest and the swooning heroine - herself almost as if ravished by love. Perhaps hints from Boucher and Tiepolo worked on Fragonard to emulate the high style for which he was not suited. His genius lay in aiming lower, from an academic standpoint, in being more rational and natural - that is, by being more witty, mischievous, and relaxed.

But in 1765 this was not yet apparent, though perhaps suspected. The whole, high, rococo fabric was toppling. For a moment the painter of the Corésus seemed the man who might keep it still upright. The picture itself was thought by Diderot to have attracted attention less by its own merits than by the need in France to find a successor to the established Carle van Loo and the supposedly promising Deshays, both of whom died that year. Boucher's talent had patently declined. Great painters, Diderot wrote in the same context, 'sont aujourd'hui fort rares en Italie', and the only person he could think of comparing with Fragonard was Mengs. At Venice, Gian Antonio Guardi was dead; Tiepolo was self exiled in Spain; Pittoni, last of the generation of talented practitioners still in the city, was to die in 1768.