Getting Fragonard’s Goat

A cabinet painting, measuring only 12″ by 7″ in Gallery 7 of the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, is half the size of a neighboring Watteau (1684-1721). The artist, 38-year-old Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), was Watteau’s true successor as a specialist in romantic comedy. Both artists exemplify the French Rococo’s appetite for depictions of contemporaries at play on the fields of Love—not some noble Baroque ideal impossible to attain and doomed to a tragic conclusion, but as a non-binding contract for mutual pleasure apt to produce double entendres and slapstick. Fragonard is especially gifted at composing scenes of bedroom farce.[1] The Useless Resistance (La Résistance Inutile)[2], a slap-dash oil sketch painted around 1770, was once more accurately called Jeune femme frappant un garconnet avec un oreiller (Young woman hitting a little boy with a pillow)[3], because while that physical gesture is clear, everything else is ambiguous. A more literal title would be The Satyr split in two, but that would spoil the viewer’s enjoyment of a long-fuse punchline that depends on patient perusal and appraisal of the scene. Fragonard uses composition, value, brushwork, non-finito, and his familiarity with classical Graeco-Roman mythology, to tease the viewer into a consideration of sexual desire as an infuriating yet potentially endearing faux pas.

Why do people fight in a boudoir? Perhaps to determine what constitutes pleasure and negotiate limits. Fragonard shows a dominant female figure in a blaze of light on muted ground, upper right, facing an indistinct body lower left, half-in, half-out of frame. A discarded peignoir drapes a chair, right foreground. The seated nymph, legs under her, having wound-up to throw a pillow, tilts her head with a look half-fond, half-annoyed, that suggests familiarity. Her radiantly blonde hair, creamy flesh, white nightdress—all rendered in palpable brushstrokes—initially blind us to any surrounding shadowy behavior. Interpreting the vestigial daubs, left: with tousled hair or feathered cap, in turquoise jacket with lacy sleeve, a boy hides his face from her (but not us) behind a barrage of bedclothes. What is going on? A showdown in the boudoir: a proposal and a refusal.

Not far from Jeune femme, somewhat obscured by a reflective plexiglass case, is a terracotta figure, only 12″ by 18″, by 27-year-old (Claude Michel) Clodion (1738-1814): The River Rhine Separating the Waters (1765). The two works have much in common. As an idealized avatar of gender, Rhine is as manly and muscled as Jeune femme is doll-like and pert-breasted. The less intimate Rhine is caught in a similar moment of physical exertion: his waters alone can divide the territories of the West-bank Gauls from the East-bank Germans.[4] Arms fully extended over a head thrown back with mouth agape, his hands gripping the cosmic water urn, he lies on his side on the rough rocks of the riverbank, stretching out his lean torso, the crux of his rippling thighs hidden by a river plant’s long clinging leaves. Shifted to a vertical position, Rhine’s urn would look not unlike Jeune femme’s pillow—except he hangs on as it gushes willy-nilly, while she must throw hers. Both figures are heroic: active, decisive, in control of a volatile situation—incarnating the energy and urgency of their virtuoso creators.

The advantage of Clodion’s terracotta in modeling the human form is its soft, warm plasticity, plus a 360-degree view from the feet up of Rhine’s shapely legs scissor-kicking the air. The back reveals how vigorously Clodion worked the clay, poking and slashing the rocks, prefiguring Rodin’s fingerprints. The advantage of Fragonard’s oil is mystery, as veils of color are applied in layers from dark to light. Atop a base coat of sepia, he lays down tangible brushstrokes in a muted palette of rose, gold, and green to surround and contrast Jeune femme in her “painted-on” nightgown. A closer inspection of the dusky bedclothes, lower left, reveals the presence of a third wheel, making this a ménage à trois, or threesome. Hidden in plain sight below the boy’s torso, sketched-in with a few flicks of the brush, are the shapely hindquarters of an ungulate or hooved beast (surreptitiously nuzzling its way under the bedclothes, perhaps searching for, or already nibbling, a parsnip lure). Further right, the sepia peaks[5] of a pair of horns under the sheet betray the mystery guest: a goat. What a cheeky prank to play! No wonder she’s throwing a pillow. Or is there more to it?

Besides being everyday barnyard creatures, goats have a surprisingly sacred Antique Greek pedigree, having been sacrificed on altars at civic theatrical festivals featuring tragedy (literally, “goat song”), comedy, and satyr plays[6]. A satyr is half-goat (legs), half-human (torso), being one of those creations “which represented, in the Greek imagination, the irrational elements of human nature, the remnants of animal impulse that the Olympian religion had attempted to sublimate or subdue,” as Kenneth Clark notes in The Nude.[7] Both Fragonard and Clodion, as winners of the Prix de Rome, were sent by the Académie Royale to Italy for years of study, which included copying antique sculpture.

For Clodion, satyrs became something of a specialty.[8] Although it’s off-exhibit, the Legion owns a variation on this theme: Nymph and Satyr (1776), a 14″ x 9″ terracotta of a gleeful young satyr hunkered down with a nymph astride his shoulder. This very soigné work, betraying no mark of its maker’s hand, is a miracle of comparative anatomy and over-determined sex roles: male muscles devolve into hairy goat hindlegs and hooves, while Nymph’s smooth limbs are tender-skinned, limp, and sprawled. Satyr’s contracted body looks set to suddenly spring, while his groggy passenger lolls: Nymph with her high, pubescent breasts and childishly open eyes and lips, holds the Bacchante’s grapes signifying intoxication. Although elevated in her ecstasy, she depends entirely on his desire, and is reduced to its object. There’s no real mystery here, only a sublimely skillful rendering of two erotically charged bodies in flagrante delicto[9] of kidnap, rape, or ravishment in the euphoric Eleusinian tradition. In the year of the American Revolution, Clodion announces a regression to Neo-Classicism, a stultifyingly square-edged suppression of the subtle, supple, subversive Rococo that runs from Marie-Antoinette through the Directoire into the long night of Empire.

Fragonard prefers to tease his viewer with an innovative look at the battle of the sexes, using the same composition. Tipping the Clodion on its side in a truly revolutionary gesture, he levels the playing field: Boy’s face atop Goat’s derrière vs. Nymph. By deconstructing the Satyr, he demystifies male sexual arousal and relocates lust in the goat which enables Nymph to set her own erotic agenda. Because his sketch is fundamentally farce, he delays the viewer’s aha moment. Strategically highlighting Nymph, he forces us to backtrack right to left, following her gaze and Boy’s outstretched hand. Postponement of pleasure is integral to Jeune femme’s charm, which is thus not called, “Young woman thwarting ambush by boy with goat.” Towering over him, in full possession of her wits, and looking more like an older sister than a girlfriend, Nymph delivers her “Non.” Perhaps the lad is mocking her dawning eroticism—budding like her breasts—even as he discovers his own. So she lashes out, in embarrassed self-consciousness, with a soft weapon. He lies doggo, but once her temper subsides, he might continue to push the goat. Where will it end? Perhaps in better mutual appreciation.

Fragonard’s inventions did not spring full-grown from his paintbrush. François Boucher (1703-70), working for La Pompadour, had previously blurred gender boundaries[10] in an adolescent wet dream of sexual equality, sprinkled with lesbian proclivities. Fragonard expands this vision through an evocation of shared emotions and reciprocal desires, proliferating charming images of happy heterosexuals at play in the bosom of Nature modeling the latest Paris fashions. This feat of léger-de-main exemplifies the je ne sais quoi of the French Rococo so admired and feared around the globe. By splitting apart the venerable mascot of classical male lust into component parts—boy’s breast and goat’s hips—the painter transforms the randy, leering letch into a naïve supplicant, unsure of himself and a bit abashed by his own impulses. Further, he portrays the nymph not in a moment of abandon, submission, or complicity, but registering her displeasure. Fragonard reinterprets classically irrational urges in a visual conundrum of sexual attraction that lets us laugh at Love.[11]


[1] Anne L. Schroder, “Fragonard’s Later Career: The Contes and Nouvelles and the Progress of Love Revisited,” The Art Bulletin 93, no. 2 (June 2011), 150-77.

[2] Other Fragonards of the same title have different compositions.

[3] Pierre Rosenberg, Fragonard, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art (1988): 310.

[4] According to the website of the Kimbell Art Museum, which owns a similar statuette, the Rhine “grips the mouth of the urn, causing the water to flow in two streams. The subject derives from the Roman historian Tacitus’s Germania (A.D. 98) and alludes to the Rhine dividing the territory of the Gauls on the west bank from that of the Germans to the east.”, accessed November 11, 2019.

[5] Peaks emblematic of erection.

[6] A fascinating genre of Greek play beyond the scope of this paper.

[7] The Nude, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books (1959), 358.

[8] “While the depth of Clodion’s experience with the imagery of Greek and Roman art can hardly be overstated, the deliciously charged rhythms, only hinted at in the reliefs on Roman sarcophagi, are entirely his own. Clodion made such works for the delectation of connoisseurs during his stay in Rome from 1762 to 1771.” James David Draper, “French Terracottas,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin XLIX, no. 3 (1991/92), 25.

[9] “In the very act of committing a misdeed” or “in the midst of sexual activity” and “literally, while the crime is blazing.”, November 24, 2019.

[10] Melissa Hyde, “Confounding Expectations: Gender Ambiguity and François Boucher’s Painted Pastorals,” Eighteenth Century Studies 30, no.1 (1996), 25-57.

[11] Unless PC has corrupted our wits.

Written By: Erin Blackwell

Photos By: Erin Blackwell

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