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Art in focus: 'The Good Mother' by French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The career and legacy of Jean-Honoré Fragonard provide a casebook study of fame's ephemeral breath. As Heidi Klum is wont to say at least once during the television reality show Project Runway: "One minute you're in, the next you're out." • So it was with Fragonard, who was celebrated and wealthy during the latter part of the 1700s but died forgotten in 1806, as were his works for much of the following century. It took a new art movement, impressionism, to bring Fragonard back to prominence, and today he is valued both for his dreamlike evocations of a lost way of life and his mastery of color and light. • This small Fragonard watercolor in the permanent collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg exemplifies those virtues. It's titled The Good Mother. As in all his works, Fragonard idealized his subject. But if anything deserves such veneration, it's motherhood. At least for one day. Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

The artist

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) was born to modest circumstances in Grasse in southern France and moved with his family to Paris in 1738.

He was largely self-taught as an artist but his innate talent secured study with two leading artists of the day: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the master of still life and Dutch-influenced scenes of domesticity, and Francois Boucher, who was a leader of the rococo movement. Fragonard won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1752 and traveled through Italy for several years. In 1761 he vaulted to sudden, spectacular success with a history painting based on a Greek myth. It was purchased by Louis XV and the assumption was Fragonard would continue in the monumental genre, considered the highest art form, one that ensured royal patronage and professional prestige.

Instead and inexplicably, Fragonard turned to the lighthearted sensuality of the rococo style in paintings that combined a tasteful eroticism with romantic scenarios. They sold well and showed to effect the unique (and sometimes controversial) loose brushwork he had begun employing. He created more than 550 paintings, along with drawings and etchings, but dated very few of them, which is why you typically won't see a specific year attached to his works.

Few details are known about Fragonard's personal life. He married in 1769 and had a son, who became a talented sculptor and painter, and daughter. His most famous commission came from Mme. du Barry, the king's mistress, for a series of panels to decorate her chateau. Titled The Progress of Love, they were returned by her, perhaps because the political climate warranted more sober, serious subjects. He left Paris sometime in the 1790s during the French Revolution because his clients were either dead or exiled. When he returned, the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David arranged a small museum post and subsidy for him. By then, rococo was passe and David's restrained style was ascendant. Fragonard's death in 1806 went unnoted.

'The Good Mother'

This watercolor is similar to an oil painting of the same title in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and it was also translated into less expensive prints. The concept of childhood as a time for parental bonding and affection was a new notion promoted by important writers of the time, which is often called the Age of Enlightenment. Fragonard had become rich and famous with his delightfully suggestive paintings of trysting men and women. This subject suggests a new sobriety, at least officially, for society. Still, Fragonard puts his gorgeous mother and her three gorgeous children in a gorgeous setting that's clearly too gorgeous to be real. Which is why we love it: Trees are as soft and billowy as clouds; the baby sleeps on a sumptuous featherbed and the young boy and girl gaze adoringly at their mother, whose dewy beauty betrays no suggestion of child-rearing's true rigors.

The rococo style

Rococo is thought to come from a combination of the French words rocaille, rock, and coquille, shell, referencing the popularity of them as decorative elements during the latter 1700s. It could also be an extension of baroque, the style that preceded it, which comes from the Portuguese barocco, which refers to an irregularly shaped pearl. However they came to be, both official labels were invented by later historians and weren't used in their times.

Rococo was mostly a design movement that embraced the elaborate details of baroque but lightened them up. It celebrated the senses and sensuality, so color, for example, was used to suggest earthly pleasures — Fragonard's human encounters in secluded glades and behind doors — rather than the heavy emotional and moral import we would find in a baroque painting of a martyred saint. Rococo was counter to the intellectual currents of the time, a century that saw the birth of the United States and the downfall of the French monarchy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great 18th century philosopher, wrote that the style we now call rococo "contributed little . . . to public virtue." It's become a generic synonym for excess.

The benefactor

Margaret Acheson Stuart had no children but she could rightfully claim the title Mother of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. It was built because of her persuasive powers and financial largesse in her adopted city where she had a winter home, as had her parents.

The family came to St. Petersburg in the 1920s. Her father was a scientist who often collaborated with Thomas Edison (who lived in Fort Myers). His wealth came from his invention of a synthetic industrial lubricant; the resulting manufacturing company he founded merged with Union Carbide in 1928. Their daughter Margaret, born in 1896, was artistic, dabbled in acting — she appeared on Broadway — and was an expert bookbinder. After her marriage, she and her husband traveled extensively and she became an inveterate museumgoer.

"That's why she wanted a museum here," says her great-niece, Fay Mackey Nielsen, who was 10 when the museum opened in 1965.

"She didn't want it to be a stuffy place," Nielsen said. "She wanted it to look like the Frick (in New York City), which had been a home before a museum."

Mrs. Stuart gave many works to the Museum of Fine Arts and persuaded her friends to give generously, too, so it had a small but strong collection that spanned human history. Today, the museum's collection numbers more than 15,000 works.

Mrs. Stuart gave The Good Mother to the museum in 1979, a year before her death. Unlike many of her gifts, this one probably didn't come from her personal holdings. Records show she purchased it that year from a collector in New York.

Her great-niece agrees, saying she doesn't remember ever seeing it in Mrs. Stuart's home though she understands its appeal to her aunt.

"The Frick was one of her favorite museums," Nielsen said. Like the Museum of Fine Arts, it was primarily the gift of one person, Henry Clay Frick, who bequeathed the Fifth Avenue mansion and his magnificent art collection to the public when he died in 1919. She would have been familiar with the room devoted to Fragonard's Progress of Love panels, the ones rejected by Mme. du Barry.

So when a Fragonard came on the market, Mrs. Stuart probably wanted it for the St. Petersburg museum.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

IF YOU GO

The Museum

of Fine Arts

The St. Petersburg museum is at 255 Beach Drive NE. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $16 adults, $14 seniors and $10 students 7 and older. fine-arts.org; (727) 896-2667.

The MFA Cafe features a Mother's Day brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today. Adults $34, kids under 12

$17, 5 and under free. The museum also offers a 20 percent discount on memberships today.

For families, a self-guided "hunt" focuses on mothers represented in the collection and special exhibitions along with the family interactive gallery.

Art in focus: 'The Good Mother' by French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard 05/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 4, 2010 5:29pm]
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