Fragonard's late masterpiece, Le Verrou [The Bolt] (fig. 1), dated by Cuzin to circa 1778, entered the permanent collections of the Louvre, and the consciousness of the public, only in 1974, yet in just a quarter of a century it has become one of the immediately and universally recognized icons of French art, a searing image of hothouse sensuality and sexual predation, in which a highly charged battle-of-the-sexes is played out in slow-motion gestures of almost balletic grace. In this single, brilliantly contrived tableau, Fragonard seems to emblematize the darkly erotic undercurrent that was manifest in the final years of the ancien rgime and was evoked with equally memorable results by Mozart in Don Giovanni (1787) and by Choderlos de Laclos in Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782).
The present painting is Fragonard's modello for the celebrated final version of the composition in the Louvre. Considerably smaller than the Louvre version (which measures 73 x 93 cm.), it is also painted with frothier, freer brushwork than is found in the slickly finished final painting. In his modello, Fragonard consciously evokes memories of his favourite painter of the previous century, Rembrandt, by bathing the scene in the warm, gilded tones of the Dutch master. Fragonard has varied his application of paint throughout the sketch to great effect, scraping it thinly across the deeply shadowed background while slathering on fatty strokes of paint in both figures - particularly in the sensuously rendered silks and satins of their clothes - and in the powerful shaft of light that illuminates them.
If Fragonard choreographs the scene like a ballet master, he stages it like a theatrical designer: the swathe of red curtain, rumpled bedclothes, overturned chair and other dislocated props, and the beam of blinding light that focuses all attention on the seducer's fateful gesture, are the inspired work of a master of stagecraft and a first-rate storyteller. Nevertheless, the painting does not illustrate a scene from any known play or novel, and was certainly Fragonard's own invention. Jules and Edmond de Goncourt (1883), themselves novelists, described Fragonard's scene memorably: 'This is the famous composition, a couple ardently and languidly embracing, the man in his shirt and underwear, stretching a bare, muscular arm toward the bolt of the door, which he pushes closed with the tips of his fingers; his head is turned toward the woman cradled in his ... arm whom he envelops with a glance of burning desire; and the distracted woman, with averted face and a terrified and supplicating gaze, despairingly pushes away her lover's mouth with an already yielding hand ... her fall is inevitable, nor has Fragonard forgotten to include in the background of his painting that which he knew so well how to open and unmake: the bed.'
Fragonard made at least three closely related chalk and wash drawings of the subject (see Pierre Rosenberg's discussion of them in the catalogue of the 1988 Fragonard exhibition, op. cit., pp. 481-2), although to judge from their appearance in photographs all of them appear to date from some years earlier than the paintings. He seems to have returned to the subject, and decided to render it in paint, only when the art collector, the marquis de Veri, ordered a pendant for the painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds (Muse du Louvre, Paris) that Fragonard had executed for him around 1776-77. Explaining the reason for the remarkable pairing of Le Verrou with a traditional scene from the life of Christ, Alexandre Lenoir noted in 1816 that since Veri had 'requested a second [painting] to serve as a pendant to the first, the artist, believing that he was proving his genius, by way of bizarre contrast produced for him a freely executed painting full of passion, known as Le Verrou.'
First, using his drawings from several years earlier for inspiration, Fragonard produced the present modello, executing it with bravura brushwork and extraordinary finesse on a fine oak panel. He then translated the sketch - with no significant changes of composition - to the large canvas which was scaled the same size as its pendant. He did alter his manner of painting significantly, however, in executing the Louvre painting: the golden palette and liquid handling of the present sketch were replaced with deeper, saturated colors and a polished finish in keeping with that of The Adoration of the Shepherds, and reminiscent of fashionable Dutch paintings by Ter Borch.
Fragonard made one significant addition to the final painting that is absent from the modello: he placed an apple prominently on the bedside table to the left of the composition, and it carries iconographic importance. The Adoration of the Shepherds and Le Verrou served to contrast the themes of Sacred and Profane Love, as Jacques Thuillier has noted, with the birth and sacrifice of Christ - as represented by The Adoration - effecting the redemption of Man, who fell from grace after sampling the pleasures of the flesh in the Garden of Eden; Eve's temptation appears in the presence of the apple in Le Verrou, providing a subtle, sophisticated reference to Man's disgrace.
Fragonard's modello has no such overt symbolism, but it hardly fails in conveying the gravity or drama of his protagonists' moment of illicit passion. As Pierre Rosenberg has eloquently observed, Le Verrou straddles the line 'between a pulsing reality and a sensuous dream', and in so doing, achieves an unprecedented balance between sensuality and poetry: 'Not until the Salon of 1785, when David exhibited his Oath of the Horatii, would one encounter a more revolutionary painting in all of French art.'
Oil on panel
Cambridge (Massachusetts), Fogg Art Museum, Loan Exhibition of Eighteenth Century French Art, 1931.
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, Loans in Honor of the Ancry Memorial, 1934, no. 28.
San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, French Painting from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day, 1934, no. 27 (loaned by Wildenstein).
Glen Falls (New York), Grandall Library, Drawings and Paintings of the XVIII Century, 1941, no. 9.
Paris, Grand Palais, and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fragonard, 24 September 1987-4 January 1988 and 2 February-8 May 1988, no. 237.
10 x 12 in. (26 x 32.5 cm.) including an addition of in. (1.7 cm.) along the lower edge
T. Lejeune, Guide Thorique de l'amateur de Tableaux, Paris, 1863, pp. 295 and 926.
R. Portalis, Honor Fragonard, sa Vie et son Oeuvre, Paris, 1889, p. 291.
P. de Nolhac, J.H. Fragonard, 1732-1806, Paris, 1906, p. 124.
R.H. Wilenski, French Paintings, New York, 1931, pp. 155, 160-1 and 163.
Art News, 8 February 1936, p. 12.
R.H. Wilenski, French Painting, New York, 1949, p. 153.
L. Rau, Fragonard, Brussels, 1956, p. 161.
G. Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard, New York and Oxford, 1960, no. 494, pl. 61, and pp. 21 and 36.
D. Wildenstein and J. Mondel, L'opera completa di Fragonard, Milan, 1972, no. 507, illustrated.
P. Rosenberg and I. Campin, 'Quatre nouveaux Fragonard au Louvre', Revue du Louvre, 1974, nos. 4-5, p. 268, fig. 11
D. Wildenstein, 'Sur le Verrou de Fragonard', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, January 1975, p. 14, fig. 2.
M. Roland-Michel, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Eighteenth century French Drawings, New York, Colnaghi and Cailleux, 1983, p. 21, illustrated.
Figaro Magazine, Art supplement, 22 June 1985.
La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, supplement, November 1985, pp. 20-21.
J.-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honor Fragonard, Vie et oeuvre, Fribourg, 1987, pp. 179-80, pl. 217 and p. 325, no. 337.
P. Rosenberg, Tout l'Oeuvre Peint de Fragonard, Paris, 1989, no. 381.
J.M. Massengale, Fragonard, New York, 1993, p. 114, colourplate 35, reproduced on cover.
Marie Franois-Henri de Franquetot, duc de Coigny (1739-1821), marchal de France, from whom seized during the French Revolution and recorded in the inventory of the National Depository at Nesles made by Lebrun, 16 April - 18 June 1794, no. 6, 'Esquisse du Verrou, sur bois, haut 8po. larg 12po. [= 21.6 x 32.4 cm.] de fragonard.'
Antoine-Gabriel-Aim Jourdan; sale, Paillet-Delaroche, Paris, 4 April 1803, lot 13, 'L'esquisse du sujet agrable, dj connu dans la curiosit et grav sous le titre de Verrou ...'
B.G. Sage, member of the Acadmie des Sciences; (+) sale, Bonnefons, Paris, 8 February 1827, lot 43.
Abel Remusat; (+) sale, 1-3 April (actually 22-23 April) 1833, lot 11 or 17, 'Le Verroux [sic]. Esquisse faite avec beaucoup d'esprit.'
Collection Bertrand, Saint-Germain-en-Laye; sale, Bonnefons, Paris, 17 March 1854, lot 7 (40 francs to Georges; then reacquired).
Bertrand; (+) sale, Delbergue, Paris, 16-17 November 1855, lot 387 (sold to H.D.).
with Wildenstein & Co., New York.
Barbara Hutton, Baronne von Cramm, New York, 1960; Sotheby's, London, 24 June 1964, lot 41.
with M. Knoedler & Co., New York.
Anon. Sale, Sotheby's, Monaco, 14 November 1983, lot 645.
Acquired at the above sale for The Akram Ojjeh Collection.