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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