It is rare indeed that a single painting can come to define an era, but no other work captures so well the erotic languor and libertinism of the last years of the ancien regime as Fragonard’s Le Verrou. It would be no exaggeration to say that the finished version, which was painted around 1778 and is today in the Louvre, is one of the most famous in all eighteenth century French art (fig.1). No other work captures so well the change in French society at the moment when the goût du plaisir characteristic of the period of Louis XV gave way to that of l'érotisme which marked the reign of Louis XVI. Just as Mozart had in his Don Giovanni (1787) and above all Choderlos de Laclos in Les Liaisions Dangereuses (1782), Fragonard's work epitomises the taste of its time, and the exaltation of `le plaisir amoureux'.
This painting is Fragonard's preliminary oil sketch or modello for the finished painting in the Louvre. Both works were painted in response to a commission from Louis-Gabriel de Véri Raionard, Marquis de Véri (1722-1785), for a pendant to an Adoration of the Shepherds that Fragonard had painted for him between 1776 and 177, which also hangs today in the Louvre (fig. 2) 1. Véri was the pre-eminent collector of contemporary art during the reign of Louis XVI. Brother of the more famous Abbé Veri, he was a distinguished amateur and a friend and patron of Hubert Robert , the Lagrenées, and of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, whose masterpieces, The Ungrateful Son and The Punished Son (1777, Musée du Louvre) he owned. His collection in his hôtel on the rue de Verneuil also boasted works by Poussin, Bourdon, Pater, Pierre, Boucher and Vernet. He was a particular admirer of Fragonard, possessing no less than ten examples of his work 2. This group, mostly acquired in the years between 1775 and 1780, included the famous Two sisters today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York3, as well as his Jeune garçon à la curiosité, which is also offered in this sale. At the Marquis de Véri's posthumous sale in 1785, the Adoration of the shepherds fetched the astonishing price of 9,501 livres - the highest price paid at auction for a Fragonard in the eighteenth century. When it was originally painted, the Marquis was so impressed by it that he is said to have asked Fragonard to paint a companion. As Alexandre Lenoir wrote in 1816, his friend Fragonard, `..in what he felt was stroke of genius, in a bizarre contrast, painted a picture that was unrestrained and full of passion, known under the name Le Verrou' 4.
The scene has since become one of the most immediately recognised and memorable images in French painting, and indeed in all eighteenth century art. The scene is entirely one of Fragonard’s own invention, and is not derived from any literary or theatrical source. In this brilliantly constructed tableau, dramatically spotlit as though as upon a stage, he has created a moment of supreme sexual tension. A young man strains against the desperate imprecations of his lover to bolt the door of their bedroom. Almost like a pas de deux in ballet, time is frozen at this one vital instant when the fall of the girl’s virtue hangs in the balance. The description of the finished work by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, writing in 1865, can hardly be bettered:
« c’est la composition si connue, ce groupe enlacé d’ardeur et de faiblesse, l’homme en chemise, en caleçon, allongeant un bras nu et musculeux jusqu’au verrou de la porte qu’il pousse du bout des doigts ; la tête retournée, il enveloppe d’un regard de désir la femme qu’il embrasse de son bras droit (sic), la femme éperdue, le visage renversé, les yeux effrayés et suppliants, désespérant d’elle-même et repoussant d’une main déjà molle la bouche de son amant… Sa chute, on la voit, Fragonard n’est pas homme à oublier dans le fond du tableau ce qu’il sait si bien ouvrir et défaire : le lit »
`This is the famous composition, this couple ardently and languidly embracing, the man in his shirt and underwear, strecthing a bare, muscular arm toward the bolt of the door, whcih he pushes closed with the tips of his fingers; his head is turned toward the woman cradled in his right arm (sic) 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' 5
In addition to the present oil sketch, three wash drawings related to this composition are recorded, which indicate that the subject and the outline of the composition had been in Fragonard’s mind for some years, and in them his development and changes to the design can be clearly followed. The first drawing was sold from the Varanchan de Saint-Geniès collection in 1777 and was later in the collection of Edmond de Rothschild (fig. ) 6. The second, formerly in the Walferdin and Buerdeley collections, was sold New York, Sotheby's, 16 January 1985, lot 149 (fig.4 ). The third is recorded by Rosenberg and Compin7 in a private collection in France. There are numerous differences between the drawings and the oil sketch or modello. In the former an oval portrait of a man hangs above and to the left of the figures, and an engraving (or drawing?) hangs to the right of the door, with a tricorn hat on the ground beside it. A chair rather than a stool stands above them. The bed itself is placed further away from the figures, and at its foot lies a tumbled armchair or fauteuil . Additional papers are strewn across the floor. All these extraneous details are, however, expunged from the modello, in which Fragonard brings the unmade bed closer to the figures and concentrates more upon the elements of light and shade , which he explores in a rich chiaroscuro. By contrast, the differences between the sketch and the finished painting are much smaller. Fragonard does, however, introduce two small details: an apple, formerly lying on the ground in the sketches, is now raised to prominence on the table in the left foreground, together with an overturned jug, while a bunch of flowers is thrown to the ground on the right of the picture. The young man, who appears with blond hair in the sketch, has dark hair in the Louvre painting, while his lover's eyes (here averted) turn towards him in supplication.
The most obvious differences between the present sketch and the finished piece in the Louvre are, however, not ones of detail but of finish and tonality. The warm golden hues of the modello are replaced in the final painting by saturated colours and a far greater degree of finish. The fresh and liquid handling inthe sketch is replaced by a more worked up surface. While the finished work in the Louvre is of the same dimensions as the Adoration of the Shepherds (73 by 93 cm.), the present sketch is of of much smaller and more intimate size and altogether lacks the other’s necessarily more polished appearance. Freed from the constraints of the finished piece, Fragonard is allowed to give his virtuosity of technique full rein, moving from the lightly glazed areas of shadow to the creamy impasto of the figures’ costume, all the while exploring the development of the composition in terms of the masses of light and shade. The tonality is warm, with hues of pale gold and brown, enlivened by pinks and whites. The flashes of turquoise which colour the chair and footstool provide a daring and unexpected contrast. In its warm golden tones and its use of the contrasts of light and shadow, especially the remarkable diagonal shaft of light that binds the whole composition together, the sketch amply demonstrates Fragonard’s admiration for the works of Rembrandt.
There has been much critical disagreement about the chronology of the drawings and the two paintings. Marianne Roland Michel8 suggested a date for the oil sketch to 1778. Wildenstein thought the drawings were made around 1765-70, followed closely by the oil sketch a year or two later, but that the finished work was not painted until 1780-84, and that the fashionable erotic undertone of the latter work reflected this later dating9. At the time of the 1987-88 exhibition, Rosenberg grouped all the works together in the period 1776-1779, arguing that their differences simply reflected Fragonard's use of different media. Most recently Martin Schieder has reasonably pointed out the the similarities between the drawings and Fragonard's earlier illustrations for La Fontaine's Contes et Nouvelles which date from around 1765-1770, in particular that for the Inhabitants of Rheims, in which a young couple embrace in a very similar interior. This observation is supported by the change of the fauteuils in the Louis XV style in the drawings, to the chaises in Louis XVI style in the paintings. This would indeed suggest that Fragonard might have first approached this composition as a draughtsman up to a decade before painting it in oils.
It is not known for certain how the sketch for Le Verrou passed from Fragonard to its first known owner, the Duc de Coigny. Marie-François-Henri Duc de Coigny (1739-1821), was a Maréchal of France, and together with his brother, Auguste-Gabriel, Comte de Coigny (1740-1817), formed part of the intimate circle which had formed around the young Queen Marie-Antoinette, who had arrived in France in 1770. Coigny owed his wealth to his position as Premier Écuyer to Louis XVI. His character is described by Tilly as `...d'excellent maintien, de ton exquis, de grande politesse' combined with `de la douceur, une politesse aimable, et un caractère qui le faisait généralement estimer et aimer'. Coigny was only able to enjoy his possession of the sketch for a short while, for it was seized from his collection at the Revolution
The choice of Le Verrou as a subject appropriate as a pendant to Véri's Adoration of the shepherds has equally attracted much critical comment. It may have been that Fragonard intended Le Verrou simply as a profane counterpart to the sacred subject of its companion, or that he wished to contrast the two disciplines of historical-religious and genre painting: the painterly strokes of the Italian manner with the high degree of finish exemplified by the Dutch masters. The former interpretation seems most plausible. The introduction of the motifs of the apple, the overturned bottle and the discarded flowers into the finished painting must surely be interpreted in symbolic rather than compositional terms. The flowers refer to the impending loss of love and innocence, while the apple would have been understood as an ironic reference to original sin. As Jacques Thuillier remarked: `The profane theme is antithetical to the religious one...The parallel, far from diminishing the work, may well reveal its deeper significance' 10. That the painting somehow defied the normal contemporary hierarchy of painting genres is well illustrated by the debate that was sparked by the appearance of Maurice Blot's reproductive engraving after Le Verrou, which was published in 1784. This engraving (fig. 9) was an instant success, and indeed Le Verrou became the most widely popularised of all Fragonard's works as a result. It is interesting to note that Blot later incorporated his engraving of Le Verrou into the background of another engraving after Fragonard, the Contract of 1792 (figs.10 and 11) in which a young woman enters upon her marriage contract with an unmistakable air of misgiving or painful recollection. Whether he and Fragonard intended this to represent the consequences of the `seduction' depicted in Le Verrou in the manner of what Diderot termed `la peinture morale' can only be guessed at, but it seems more likely that Blot merely intended to capitalise upon the extraordinary success of the latter. One critic, the Abbé de Fontenai, remarked that in his original engraving Blot had failed to render precisely enough the details of fine fabrics, while another, a Monsieur de Saint-Félix, noted that this was because Fragonard had approached his subject in the manner of a history painter. The former believed this an error, for ..`the author of `Le Verrou' was not portraying a subject from history', and thus he `..ought to have entered into all the details essential to tableaux of this inferior genre'. It is not impossible, as Lenoir seems to suggest, that in his choice of polished finish for the final version of Le Verrou -more remininscent of Metsu and Ter Borch than Rembrandt - Fragonard intended nothing less than a demonstration of his mastery of both genres.
The Abbé de Fontenai may have accurately reflected contemporary opinion, but to modern eyes it may be argued that it was exactly this process, this stripping away of incidental detail exemplified by this sketch, that enabled Fragonard to modify his artistic concerns and in the process create a work of art of unexpected seriousness and emotional force. More than anything else, the sketch marks the realisation of that extraordinary balance between movement and stillness, and between sensuality and grace, that gives Le Verrou its impact. In the eloquent words of the great French Fragonard scholar, Pierre Rosenberg, the painting succeeds in achieving a fusion of `une réalité palpitante d’un rêve voluptueux’ that would not be matched again by the artist in his lifetime, and which remains to this day one of the most enduring of all images of eighteenth century French painting. Indeed, in his words: `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’.
1. Exhibited Paris, Grand Palais and New York, Metropolitan Museum, Fragonard, 1987-88, no. 234. A preparatory drawing is also in the Louvre (inv. R.F. 31.875)
2. For a fuller discussion and biography see C. Bailey, `Le Marquis de Véri. Collectionneur', in Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire de l'Art Français, 1983 (1985), pp. 67-83.
3. Exhibited, Paris and New York, Fragonard, 1987-88, no. 157.
4. In a first draft of this famous text, Lenoir had written: `..so that the painting serving as a pendant might offer a pronounced contrast, he (Fragonard) executed Le Verrou';
5. E. and J. de Goncourt, Fragonard, Paris 1865, pp. 272, 329.
6. Its present whereabouts are unknown. See Rosenberg and Campin, 1974, p. 267, reproduced fig. 10.
7. Ibid., p. 269, reproduced fig. 14.
8. Roland-Michel, see Literature below, 1983, p. 21.
9. Wildenstein, 1975, p. 13.9.
10. J. Thuillier, in the exhibition cataloue, Tableaux de Fragonard et meubles de Cressent, Paris 1974, p. 1.
Oil on panel, in a French carved and gilded double swept centre and corner Transitional frame, circa 1770
Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum, Loan exhibition of French Art, 1931;
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, Loans in honour of the Ancry Memorial, 1934, no. 28;
San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honour, French Painting fromthe Fifteenth Century to the present day, 1934, no. 27 (lent by Wildenstein);
Glen Falls, New York, Grandall Library, Drawings and Paintings of the XVIII century, 1941, no. 9;
Paris, Grand Palais, and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fragonard, 24 September 1987 - 4 January 1988 and 2 February - 8 MAy 1988, no. 237;
Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Washington, National Gallery of Art, and Berlin, Staatkliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre painting, June 2003 - May 2004,no. 83.
24 by 32.5cm.; 9 1/2 by 12 3/4in.
T. Lejeune, Guide Théorique de l'amateur de Tableaux, Paris 1863, pp. 295 and 926;
E. and J de Goncourt, `Fragonard', in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 3rd edition, Paris 1882, pp. 272, 329;
Baron R. Portalis, Honoré 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, 160-161 and 163;
Art News, 8 February 1936, p. 12;
R.H. Wilenski, French Painting, New York 1949, p. 153;
L. Réau, Fragonard, Brussels 1956, p. 161;
G. Wildenstein, Les peintures de Fragonard, London 1960, pp. 21, 36 and 494, reproduced plate 61;
G. Mandel, L'opera completa di Fragonard, Milan 1972, no. 507;
P. Rosenberg and I. Campin, `Quatre nouveaux Fragonard au Louvre', in Revue de Louvre, 1974, nos. 4-5, p. 286, fig. 11;
D. Wildenstein, `Sur le Verrou de Fragonard', in 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, p. 21, reproduced;
Figaro Magazine, Supplement 22 June 1985;
La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Supplement, November 1985, pp. 20-21;
J-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Vie et oeuvre. Catalog complet des peintures, Paris 1987, p. p. 179-80, 325, no. 337, reproduced pl. 217;
P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris 1989, no. 381;
J.M. Masengale, Fragonard, New York 1993, p. 114, colour plate 35 and on cover;
C. Bailey, P. Conisbee, T.W Gaeghtens, The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard. Masterpieces of French genre painting, New Haven and London 2003, pp. 290-291.
Marie-François-Henri de Franquetot, Duc de Coigny (1739-1821), Maréchal 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. de fragonard';
Antoine-Gabriel-Aimé Jourdan, Paris;
His sale Paris, Paillet-Delaroche, 4 April 1803, lot 13 ('l'esquisse du suject agréable, déjà connu dans la curiosité et gravé sous le titre de `Verrou'..);
B.G. Sage, Paris;
His (deceased) sale, Paris, Bonnefons, 8 February 1827, lot 43;
Abel Remusat, Paris(?);
His (deceased) sale, 22-23 April 1833, lot 11 or 17 (`Le Verroux (sic). Esquisse faite avec beaucoup d'esprit');
Bertrand Collection, Saint-Germain-en-Laye;
His sale, Paris, Bonnefons, 17 March 1854, lot 7, where unsold or bought back;
His (deceased) sale, Paris, Delbergue, 16-17 November 1855, lot 387;
With Wildenstein & Co., New York;
Barbara Hutton, Baronne von Cramm, New York, by 1960;
Her sale, London, Sothebys, 24 June 1964, lot 41;
With M. Knoedler & Co., New York;
Anonymous sale, Monaco, Sothebys, 14 November 1983, lot 645;
Akram Ojjeh, London;
His sale, London, Christie's, 17 December 1999, lot 95, when acquired by the present owner.