Jean-Honoré Fragonard: La Récompense, schwarze Kreide und Pinsel, grau laviert, Konturen durchgegriffelt, auf Büttenpapier, 429 x 342 mm. Inv. Nr. 1955.5, Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum, New York
Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Le concours, Pinsel in Braun (Chinatusche) auf Papier, 430 x 340 mm. Privatbesitz, Paris (Ananoff 1961.I.41.26)
Fragonard describes the efforts and carefree mood of children competing in the merry company of an elegant circle of people. He may have encountered a scene such as this in Paris at the city palais of his patron, the Duc de Chabot. In addition to his other activities as a patron of the arts, the duke and his wife, Elisabeth Louise de la Rochefoucault, maintained a private drawing academy at the palais. Among the guests who frequented his home were artists like Fragonard and his friend Hubert Robert, who gave drawing lessons to wealthy dilettantes, and other contemporaries like the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). In a letter to his father, Leopold, dated 1 May 1778, Wolfgang writes of a performance at the Hôtel de la Rochefoucault and complains bitterly about the company, who continued to draw instead of listening attentively to the music.
The competition shown here by Fragonard seems similarly informal. In an imposing architectural setting, a lively group of children has gathered round a table in bright daylight to devote their attention with varying degrees of concentration to the task of reading and writing. Two extravagantly dressed ladies are assisting them while the youthful parents standing in the background follow the efforts of their offspring with great delight.
The brushwork on top of the drawing, executed in black chalk, demonstrates the artist's light and expert touch. Through the interplay between the grey and brown washes and the coating of watercolours, he has created a transparency with masterly skill that does justice to all the textures, from the stone pilasters to the shimmering red of the child's clothes.
The composition is carefully arranged down to the last detail, and Fragonard also drew a companion piece ('The Winner's Return', Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) to form a sequel to the scene. It is highly unlikely that he created these works on-site, but he will probably have drawn on experience in order to comment in his own way on the subject of education, which was of great interest during the Age of Enlightenment.
As a former student of François Boucher, Fragonard initially preferred black and red chalk before switching to the paintbrush in the 1770s. The collection at the Städel includes a significant group of works from the different creative phases of this exceptionally gifted graphic artist.