Life As It Was Not

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Visite a la nourrice/Visit to the Nursery

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Visit to the Nursery

It looks like a beautiful painting of a loving family.

The room is mostly in shadow; a silvery light that comes through opened curtains past an unlit lantern and carries our gaze with it to the man at the centre of the painting.  He kneels on a stool, gazing at the baby in the cradle.  The face of the woman with him is partly in shadow; the circle of light on her chin, cheeks and mouth is echoed in the haloing circle of the hat brim round her head.  The white of her dress, of the man’s shirt, of part of the bedclothes covering the baby and of the young girl’s blouse all pick up, reflect and lend a sense of purity to the light.

The man leans against woman as he gazes; her arms hold him even as she turns from him to gaze at the baby too.  You can just see the baby sleeping in the cradle; only a form, barely defined.  An old woman sits on a trunk in the shadows beside the cradle.  She is leaning forward, watching the man as he gazes, one hand on the cradle, the other holding a cane.  A cat sleeps by her feet.  The two children who have slipped into the room through the open door behind the couple gaze in wonder at the scene.  One of the children, gazing at the the woman, echoes her look; like hers, the brim of his hat circles his head like a halo.

It looks like a sentimental scene, a sweet family moment, quite unlike the gently erotic paintings that Jean-Honore Fragonard was best known for.  The subject makes sense – family scenes are a popular subject, and besides it was painted after his marriage, when he toned down the sexual suggestion in his earlier work.

Yet there is something not quite right about it.  The light seems cold for such a warm scene.  The way the people lean toward the baby, the looks on their faces, the way the group is composed, all seem to echo more religious paintings and make us think more of worship than tenderness.

And yet it is a beautiful image, suggesting love and harmony. It is an image of life as it could be, as it might be for a very few – but for most, life as it was not.

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