Charlemagne Leads Angelica away from Roland
c1785 by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada
Fragonard was a successful French painter, popular with Louis XV and his court; his paintings were fanciful, fantastical and often full of Romantic subjects, encouraged by his delicate, wildly coloured depictions. It is interesting then to see his work in monotone, without its sumptuous and electrifying colouration. We may see the delicacy of his creations, his figures materialising out of a wash of earthy pigment and pencil, faces meticulously drawn, spherical in their convincing three-dimensionality. Draped clothing is translucently pulled into the clouding behind, and silvery wings, weightless in their restraint of line – lighter than air – carry their owners in flight. What is particularly interesting is that though the drawing has little tone, Fragonard’s would-be use of light is evident. His paintings notoriously have an illuminating source, fuelling the fantastical themes, filling them with a sense of wonder. In this painting it would surely stream from the sky-bound explosion the angels euphorically swoop round, beams bursting, in light of Charlemagne’s act of leading Princess Angelica away (taken from Ariosto’s Italian epic ‘Orlando Furioso’). Compositionally Fragonard makes the illustration’s dramatic light clear, without the submergence of illustrious and highlighting colour – it is clear that his wondrous paintings do not owe their back-lighting to painted colour alone. What we see here is a vision, black and white, but full of vitality even before its complete realisation.