Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant (Metropolitan Museum Favorites, 14)

Through January 8, 2017, the Metropolitan Museum is showing  Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant. The exhibition includes about 100 drawings by this top-notch 18th-century artist, some from the MMA, others from private collections in New York.

Jean Honore Fragonard (1732–1806) , one of the greatest artists of the Rococo period, is famous for paintings that feature frivolous and erotic subjects, delicate colors, and lively brushwork. Contemporaries called Fragonard’s painting style the “swordplay of the brush.” In this drawing, you can see – reduced to essentials – the skill that allowed him able to paint that way.

Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, Grasse 1732–1806 Paris) The First Riding Lesson, ca. 1775-78 French, Graphite and brown wash on antique laid paper; 13 11/16 × 17 3/4 in. (34.8 × 45.1 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alastair B. Martin, the Guennol Collection 57.189 (FNY.31)

Jean Honoré Fragonard, The First Riding Lesson, ca. 1775-78.  Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alastair B. Martin, the Guennol Collection 57.189 (FNY.31). Photo:

Here’s what I love about this sketch – one of my favorites in the exhibition.

  • It’s silly but benevolent: the couple are clearly having fun with their kid.
  • It’s timeless. I know doting parents who would do this.
  • The expressions on the faces of the mother, child, dog, and father are all conveyed with a minimum of pencil strokes – expertly and convincingly.
  • Those same minimal strokes convey the artist’s knowledge of anatomy and his ability to observe fleeting moments. Look at the child’s arms, flung up and out (alarm? excitement?), and his pudgy no-walking-muscles-yet legs.
  • The artist masterfully directs attention via detail (and lack of it) and via dark vs. light values. For example, although the woman’s dress probably had all sorts of gewgaws and gimcracks (this was sketched in France before the Revolution), in the drawing her dress is sketched with just a few lines, so that our attention remains focused on the faces.

Other favorites


Fragonard, Deacon Carrying a Book, ca. 1758-59. Private collection. Photo:

Fragonard, The Inspiration of the Artist. Private collection. Photo:

Fragonard, The Inspiration of the Artist. Private collection. Photo:

Thoughts on looking at drawings

Back in 2005, I wrote an essay on drawings (unpublished) built around the MMA’s exhibition of Rubens drawings. This section was written with preparatory drawings in mind.

Looking at drawings is like seeing an artist thinking. Most people don’t rework the School of Athens or the Sistine Chapel ceiling in their minds: it’s difficult to imagine a top-notch painting in any way other than its familiar, finished state. But the artist’s sketches bring home the truth that the finished product wasn’t predetermined, and didn’t spring full-blown from the artist’s mind. It was the product of long, hard thought. Viewing drawings gives you a glimpse into that effort: what the artist tried, modified, and rejected before settling on the final version.

Another reason to look at drawings is for the practice it gives you in looking at art. To look at a work of visual art for an extended period and enjoy every detail, you need to be able to shift your focus from the broadest points down to the most minute details. In reading literature, it’s the difference between considering the theme and looking at word choice or syntax. It’s being able to move from the concrete to the general and back again – being able to see the size and shape of the forest while still identifying the separate trees.

Looking at drawings is excellent practice for learning to study details, because in a drawing, the wider context is usually not there. You’re seeing the artist working out details of one or two figures, so you can concentrate on observing gestures, expressions, poses, etc., without having to think about the scope and significance of the finished painting.


  • All the works in the Fragonard exhibition are online here.
  • Fragonard’s Girl Reading was the subject of one of my posts on art at the National Gallery in Washington.
  • The book that got me interested in drawings is Reading Drawings, A Selection from the Victoria and Albert Museum, by Susan Lambert. Published for an exhibition in 1984, it covers drawing surfaces, media and techniques, and then drawing for study purposes, drawing as “thinking on paper,” and drawing for utility (sketches for items in other media, technical illustrations, etc.). The illustrations, mostly in black and white, are pleasingly crisp.
  • I’m currently revising Innovators in Painting, which I give as a walking tour at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s the companion to the Innovators in Sculpture tour (and book). If you’re on my email list, you’ll be the first to hear when I offer it: contact me at
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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