Jean-Honoré Fragonard's Mythological Figures

Fragonard, The Goddess Minerva. c. 1772. The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Here is a selection of mythological and fictional figures that Fragonard painted.  Working throughout the 18th century, Fragonard studied with François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Charles-André van Loo and Charles-Joseph Natoire. He was and is known for his genre paintings. 

Before he studied art, Fragonard was an apprentice to a notary in Paris. One account suggests his parents noticed his artistic inclinations and prompted him to seek a different apprenticeship while another says he was fired from his desk job because he doodled too often!

Fragonard, Psyche Showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid. 1753. National Gallery, London.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a rise in the popularity of painting mythological and popular figures. Louis XIV was known to liken himself with Apollo, making the sun king as grand as the sun god.

Fragonard began his career painting history paintings, one of which earned him the Prix de Rome. He was hesitant to enter for the prize but his teacher at the time, Boucher, encouraged him to enter saying that "it does not matter, you are my student."¹ He entered and won the prize in 1752.

Fragonard had no problem depicting mythological figures in sensual and idyllic ways. Fragonard painted the above work while he was still studying under Boucher.

In this scene, Psyche is showing her sisters the wonderful gifts her husband has given her. She does not know his true identity because he only visits her at night.  A fury appears over them, causing jealousy of the sisters. They convince her to keep a lantern at night so that she may see her husband and so Psyche will reveal the identity of her lover.²

Fragonard, Procris and Cephalos. 1755. Musée des beaux-arts.

After winning the Prix de Rome in 1752 he was enrolled in the École des Élèves Protégés, "an elite preparatory school for recipients of the Prix de Rome."³ He painted this work during his last year at the school, finishing his enrollment in September 1755.

Cephalus, an avid hunter, and Procris were married and deeply attached to one another. Cephalus was very good looking and was abducted by the Dawn Goddess, Esos. While with Esos, she bared Cephalus a child and she told him that he would regret the day he married Procris. This sparked jealousy and mistrust of his beloved wife. He tricked Procris by offering her an indecent proposal disguised as someone else, pressing Procris to accept. After she accepted and he revealed himself she left to live in the mountains, understandably upset. Eventually Cephalus sought her out and asked her to return to him.

One day someone mentioned to Procris that Cephalus was overheard asking Aura to soothe him.  Cephalus accidentally shot and killed his wife one day when she was observing him to see if he was being unfaithful with 'Aura'. As she lay dying, she confronted him about a possible affair, to which he explained 'aura' was merely a breeze, which he asked to soothe him after a strenuous hunt. Everything as a misunderstanding.

Fragonard, Grand Priest Coresus Sacrifices Himself to save Callirhoë. c. 1765. Louvre.
The painting earned Fragonard admittance to the Académie royale in 1765.  Coresus was a grand priest who fell in love with Callirhoë who rejected him. He complained to the Gods and they inflicted the people with madness. When asked how to end the madness they responded that Callirhoë or some other willing person had to be sacrificed by Coresus.  As he was about to kill Callirhoë, he was overcome with love and stabbed himself.  Callirhoë was so saddened by this act, she ended her own life.⁶  

Rather than continue with history paintings he chose to focus on genre paintings which soared in popularity among the court throughout the Rococo.

Further Reading

The Oxford Guide to Classic Mythology in Art

¹ Williams, Eunice. 1978. Drawings by Fragonard in North American collections. Washington: National Gallery of Art.

²"Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts from Cupid". 2009. In National Gallery Collection, National Gallery. London: The National Gallery.

³Hecht, Johanna. “Jean Antoine Houdon (1741–1828).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2008)

⁴"Cephalus". 2002. In Who's Who in Classical Mythology, Routledge, Michael Grant and John Hazel. London: Routledge.

"Fragonard, Jean-honoré". 2016. In The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press.   

⁶"Callirhoe (4)". 2014. In Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

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