Jean-Honore Fragonard’s “The Swing,” one of the best-known pieces from the French Rococo period, speaks volumes for what we expect from French art. The sweet buttery elegance of the aristocratic French. A soft pink heel thrown into luscious green grass while folds and floods of rich fabric careen around a small, delicate female frame. We can’t help but wish to be a part of the fun. Though we seem to feel separated, their elegance, poise and wealth seem unattainable to the viewer, we’re destined to always be placed on the outside. As the wish to be part of the seemingly frivolous spending and way of life quickly transforms into resentment, and thus why this piece is often discussed in context with the French Revolution. The lower classes’ anger at the overspending of the top tiers of wealth while they starved on the street. Two sides of one coin and the ever-shifting nature of the French art scene. It would require a trip to London to view Fragonard’s “The Swing,” the beauty of the piece remaining as far from us as we originally believed. But fortunately, an opportunity to get a snapshot into the height of French art has come to Fairfield University through “A French Affair: Drawings and Paintings from the Horvitz Collection” exhibit located in the Fairfield University Art Museum, located in Bellarmine Hall. This look into the French art created during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries will be displayed until March 29.
Though “The Swing” still remains across the Atlantic Ocean, the collection contains other Fragonard pieces, a few drawings, and a painting. The painting, one of the more impressive pieces of the collection, is placed a bit towards the back, hidden from the eye of the casual off-the-street wanderer, requiring a bit of searching to find his name displayed proudly across a little white card. It’s magnificent, painted sherbert in ghostly tones, the fluffy elegant clouds fading into the background. You wish nothing more than to just inhale. Inhale just once and step into the world seen in his “The Death of Cleopatra,” the world that can now be seen just steps away from my front door.
The collection is separated into two. You begin, where any artist begins: with chalk, or crayon or pencil. With an impermanent material, you begin with a sketch. Often, as a viewer, it can be easy to disregard the smaller pieces of art from our vision, as the larger and elegant oil paintings seem of much more interest. But when viewing pieces such as Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s “Love and Folly,” one that is not much larger than a postcard, you can’t help but marvel at the skill needed to pull of such fine detail on such a small canvas. The oil paintings, with their assortments of different colors and shades, allow room for mistakes and bleedings and slips of the fingers. But, for an artist to hold control over such simple material as a pencil, all the shading and detailed maintained by an instrument held by millions of young students around the country, you realize the true skill held.
You notice eventually that though the skills transfer throughout each piece, the general retrospective look at over a century of art allows for a closer look at the differing styles in favor at the time. We might begin at the beautiful and desperately romantic Fragonard sketch, “Ruggerio and Alcina Attend a Play in the Palace,” but then walk with just a few steps over and view the later, very starch and perspectively strict Neoclassical Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron drawing, “Fluvia Revealing the Cataline Conspiracy to Cicero.” Then the piece we held in our mind as the view of French Art, Fragonard’s “The Swing,” becomes just another note in an otherwise very complicated, and diverse, piece.
It’s not until you enter the incredibly pink section of the gallery, the walls painted an unsettlingly bright shade I could only describe as flamingo, that your breaths start to land a bit heavier. The fluffy fabrics and overall pastel color palette mix with the strong, firm brush strokes of the ever-confident French artists and produce magic. As you stare into the eyes of “Genieve-Francois-Laurette Randon Da Malboissiere as Melpomene” by Louis-Michel van Loo and can’t help but feel lesser in her presence. The pearls strung around her neck, a gold crown held in her hand, the crisp white fabric melting around as her waist seems cinched in gold, make her look ethereal, completely untouchable.