Jean-Honore Fragonard:
The Good Mother

Click on the picture to see an inlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas
    • 18.5 x 22.25 inches
    • Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

After his marriage in 1769, although he continued to churn out the erotic "private pictures" for which he is best known, Fragonard increasingly began painting children and family scenes. These are usually called "genre painting", and were modeled on the "everyday" subjects favored by Dutch artists in the 17th century. In this genre, children playing games and mothers rocking their babies were standard topics.

Yet this particular painting is quite different. Although modeled almost entirely upon Rembrandt's Holy Family with Angels (currently at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg), Fragonard has dispensed with the biblical context: St. Joseph and the angels disappear. Nevertheless, the modern setting of the subject is redolent of the traditional madonna and child. The painting is noted for its warm tones and rich brushstrokes, and for the near absence of a background. The brushwork is heavy and almost spontaneous. Indeed the whole treatment seems radically different from the school of genre painting and from Fragonard's usual style. Scholars have expressed amazement that the rather unimaginative Fragonnard could indulge in such a innovative approach.

What make this work so charming? What feelings does Fragonard intend to induce in the viewer? Compared to his erotic and "gallant" pictures, what does this work say about French life at the end of the 18th century? Of course, we can only speculate here, but is this painting a foretaste of "bourgeois art?" Is the "good mother" painted precisely because she and her child are radically separated from all the frivolity of the ancien regime?

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