The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until April 2) is Gods and Heroes: Classical Mythology in European Prints. The show features 21 prints that cover the Renaissance through the early twentieth century and are by artists from Germany, Holland, France, Italy, and England. Each print offers insight into why European artists used the narratives of classical mythology. This is the first in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
For most visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) is known as a painter. He painted The Shepherdess (pictured below), which is the focal point of our Rococo gallery.
And it is the centerpiece of this gallery for good reason! It is a perfect example of the elegant and amorous style so popular in eighteenth century France.
A beautiful young lady, dressed in a fashionable and revealing costume (we can see her ankles!), sits in the countryside awaiting her lover, who enters the scene over the distant hill. The composition is full of delicate curlicues and pastel colors, creating a frothy vision of the pastoral ideal.
Fragonard, however, was not only a masterful painter (he made The Shepherdess when he was only about 19 years old). He was also a fabulous etcher.
Take, for example, his four small prints in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection that are known together as Bacchanals.
The title of this series refers to celebrations of Bacchus, the god of wine. Often during a bacchanal, Bacchus would be joined by his attendants, which include satyrs —creatures that are half goat and half man—and their feminine companions called nymphs.
In ancient times, bacchanals would have been violent rites of drunken and licentious behavior (such as depicted on this Roman sarcophagus).
Fragonard, however, adapts the subject for the Rococo audience. His prints show satyrs and nymphs playfully interacting. The mood is lighthearted and, in the case of images that show a family unit, heartwarming.
It’s not as if Fragonard did not have a chance to see ancient depictions of satyrs and nymphs. He made these four prints after living in Italy for a number of years.
While there, he made many sketches after artwork by Renaissance and Baroque masters as well as ancient art.
For example, his drawing below includes studies of sculpture in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (The British Museum holds dozens of his Italian drawings, which you can view on their collection website.)
In Bacchanals, Fragonard chooses to show stayrs and nymphs as if they are ancient reliefs in a lush landscape, recalling the ruins he must have seen in his travels.
Fragonard’s mastery of etching lends itself well to these small images, which are gemlike in their scale and level of detail. They draw us in, aiming to amuse but also making us marvel at his skill. With just a few marks, Fragonard captured both movement and depth of space!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.