Jean-Honore Fragonard:
Visit to the Nursery

Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas: 1775
    • 28 3/4 x 36 /1/4 inches
    • National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Although Fragonard is usually associated with amusing and mildly erotic works, he was also an observant and sincere painter of family life. This early example is one of his most ambitious and successful paintings in that genre. It has an unusually classical composition of horizontal, vertical and triangular forms, with fluent handling and a soft palette.

Ths subject matter, however, is a matter of some debate. It appears to describe a touching scene in which a young husband and wife gaze lovingly upon their sleeping child. The room, however, is rather rustic, and the couple appear to be fashionably dressed, and just come in from the outdoors. The three other children seem to have wandered in almost by mistake. Some critics have claimed it was an urban couple visiting their child in the rural home of a wet nurse; others say it is just Fragonard trying his hand at being Greuze. But a recent scholar has argued that the scene comes from a Jean François de Saint-Lambert's popular novel of 1765 in which a well-bred beautiful young English girl falls in love with a humble but educated Scottish farmer and they live happily ever after on a farm away from the city. One scene from that novel seems to describe this picture perfectly:

"I saw them enter a room off the garden, its window open: they went together to a cradle where their fifth child was lying; the two of them knelt by the cradle, by turn look at their child and at each other, all the while holding hands and smiling."

It seems clear that Fragonard is here celebrating the virtues of honesty and sincerity and the emotional satisfaction of parenthood. As the novel's narrator concluded: "I was enchanged by this touching scene of conjugal love and parental tenderness." Worthy of note is the way Fragonard has added a distinct religious flavor to the picture; its rustic setting reminds us of the stable and manger and the dramatic yet soft spotlighting imitates the heavenly aura always found in Nativity pictures.

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