The model’s debut: Fragonard’s look at the loss of innocence

I already mentioned that Fragonard is one of my favorite painters and that I am honored to have a detail of one of his paintings adorn the cover of Mistress of the Revolution. A very versatile artist, equally at ease with religious themes, insightful portraits and light, sometimes libertine scenes. This painting, Les débuts du modèle (The model’s début) belongs to the latter category. Or maybe not.

Fragonard The debut of the model

Fragonard The debut of the model

We have three characters here. The painter, dressed in a rather astonishing salmon-pink suit, lifts with the point of his cane the skirts of a young girl whose breasts have already been bared by an older, fully dressed woman. She may be the girl’s mother or some kind of intermediary, perhaps a procuress.

What is sure is that the girl is being appraised, ostensibly for her value as a nude model. Her bare bosom may have been deemed satisfactory, but the painter wants to see whether her legs are on a par before hiring her.

Certainly the man’s artistic purpose is obvious from the blank canvas in the background and the palette he holds, but he is not decently attired by 18th century standards. He wears an open shirt and no necktie, his chest is exposed, his breeches are unbuttoned. The older woman makes no mistake: note how her eyes are pointed in that direction. The characters avoid each other’s eye. The painter looks at the girl’s leg, and she looks at us.

She may seem passive, with her right arm resting on the sofa, but with her left hand she is trying to keep her skirts down. It is, however, easy to imagine the ultimate success of that half-hearted attempt at modesty. The  sexual innuendo is clear here. Personally I read all the contempt in the world into the manner in which the painter lifts the girl’s skirt. There is no doubt of what will happen once the bargain is struck and the older woman leaves.

A recurring theme in 18th century French literature (think of Manon Lescaut, of Dangerous Liaisons or, in a different register, of the novels of the Marquis de Sade) is the exploitation of youth and beauty, the loss of innocence. This is also, I believe, the topic of this diminutive, sketchy Fragonard, which you can admire at the Jacquemart-Andre Museum in Paris.

It is easy to be dazzled by the intellectual and artistic brilliance of pre-revolutionary France, by the refinement of the sweetness of living, so well represented by Fragonard. But let’s not be fooled: that world was merciless to the most vulnerable of its inhabitants, especially women.

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12 Comments to “The model’s debut: Fragonard’s look at the loss of innocence”

  1. David says:

    Fragonard is my favorite artist—from the very first time I saw a piece of his and immediately recognized the sexual context of it. I thought it was called the Secret Meeting, but a book I have labels it as La Surprise. He does an incredible job of telling a story of clandestine amorous encounters, the innocent virginal curiosity of the ways of love, and the ugly face of innocence lost–especially when it is coerced. I found this page when I was doing an image search for Les Debuts du Modele. The one book I have on Fragonard (Fragonard by Marie-Anne Dupuy-Cachey), I picked up in France last summer—-unfortunately I do not speak french—-but the art speaks for itself. I’m glad I found this——I find very little written about Fragonard.

    I do collect art but of course I do not have any Fragonard. I do have one—perhaps 19th century Wood Block Print from Frace that is a pastoral scene of young boy teaching a young girl to play the flute—with plenty of sexual symbolism suggesting a innocence about to be lost, but in a different setting, prhaps without any coercion.

  2. Penny says:

    I was looking at “The Swing”. Despite the sexual overtones, it was quite playful. is it my imagination or does he usually have 3 people in those scenes? I did like his non sexual the importance of education. the children were adorable with the dogs in human attire. he is quite playful. was this done after his marriage or didn’t that affect his choices of topics? i can see now why he is one of your favorites. have you looked at a 20th century painter, Enjolras? I have 2 of his on my walls.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Penny! I hadn’t thought of the similarity between the girl and the canvas, but you are perfectly right.

  4. Penny says:

    I agree, broken pitcher and the model’s debut are loss of innocence before and after. Greuze looks a little more subtle. This painting is very unsettling to me. at first i thought it was a menage a tois but on closer inspection it looks more like a business transaction for the younger woman who looks as if she is blushing. a virgin like the canvas behind them. thank you for the commentary.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    So let’s says The Model’s Debut and the Broken Pitcher are about two different looks at the loss of innocence: before and after.

    So Jacquemart-Andre will get its own post, and so will Nissim de Camondo, another little museum in my own corner of Paris.

  6. Sheramy says:

    I think the Jacquemart-Andre deserves its own post, definitely!

    The Broken Pitcher, to me, certainly alludes to the loss of innocence: her disarranged clothes, the broken pitcher itself, the somewhat glazed expression that engages the viewer without being a direct gaze…even the pseudo-pharaonic lion-fountain at right has a bit of a predatory air. I’m not a big Greuze fan, but I remember being drawn by that painting the first time I saw it. By her eyes, especially. It has a more wistful feel than the Fragonard you posted, though. The Fragonard is almost more unsettling (to a modern eye) because it’s so cavalier about the girl’s plight and is intended to be humorous.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Sheramy! I think Greuze is also a very worthwhile painter, but his focus is more innocence itself than the loss thereof. Though indeed La cruche cassee (The Broken Pitcher) may be an allusion to that.

    I recommend the Jacquemart-Andre to any lover of 18th century art. It also has an astounding collection of Renaissance Venitian paintings (and, in a very French fashion, a lovely tea room.) Maybe it deserves its own post, come to think of it.

  8. Sheramy says:

    Very interesting picture and terrific commentary. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to the Jacquemart-Andre (it’s on my list for next time), so this Fragonard is new to me. Greuze liked these kinds of themes too. I think immediately of “The Broken Pitcher” in the Louvre, which is a bit sentimental but touching nonetheless.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    True. Louis XV was no role model for his grandson! What a pity from a political, and personal standpoint.

  10. Oh, I definitely think of Louis XV as a sexual predator. His behavior had a bad effect on the society in general and on his family in particular. I think that the teenage Louis XVI’s initial pulling back from fourteen-year-old Marie-Antoinette was partly a reaction to the fact that his grandfather was bedding extremely young girls. Young Louis’ aunts were constantly reminding him that such conduct was a weakness which he as the future king should not imitate.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Absolutely, Elena! And yet we don’t think of Louis XV and other libertines as sexual predators.

  12. Fascinating commentary, Catherine. It really was a very corrupt time. All one has to do is read what Madame Campan says about Louis XV and the young girls who would be procured for him.

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