Moments ago I could see Cheyenne Mountain and other mountains of Colorado’s Front Range stretching south into the distance. Then a blustery northwest wind swooped in with clouds and snow squalls, rubbing out the mountains as if with an artist’s gray eraser.
Soon the temperature dropped, the clouds settled in like a heavy slate roof, and I decided it was a good day to curl up in my favorite chair with hot cocoa and a good book.
In A Young Girl Reading by French artist, Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), the subject is doing just that! Well, she doesn’t have hot cocoa, but her pinkie finger is curved as if she might have a cup of tea.
And while I opt for jeans and a fleecy blanket instead of a fancy dress, I do have a fluffy pillow!
Fragonard lived in Paris most of his life. As a teenager he was apprenticed to Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, who was a master of still lifes and genre scenes of domestic life.
Fragonard later trained as a history painter in Paris and in Italy, but when he returned to Paris, he chose to do small works for private collectors. Many portray the courtly life of the aristocracy in the fluffy, cotton-candy-colored Rococo style.
Later in life Fragonard returned to Italy, and drawings from then show he still enjoyed working on genre scenes. A Young Girl Reading captures one of those everyday moments. In Paris, though, art styles had changed, and Fragonard died in 1806, mostly forgotten.
Several things can help us understand artworks:
- Subject–what it’s about
- mood–what feelings we get from it
- composition— how the artist arranges shapes, lines, and colors to get us to notice the subject
- style and/or technique–in what manner the artist works
Artists have to learn to put all these together to create a satisfying whole. Nothing is there by chance, at least not in the artist’s opinion!!
- What is happening in this painting? Does the title fit the subject?
- Is the girl focused on the book or looking away—maybe daydreaming?
- We ask: Is the mood quiet or noisy? busy or peaceful? Does it fit the subject?
- I think most of us would say that the comfy pillow denotes relaxation. (Generals planning battles don’t sit with fluffy pillows!)
- The yellows and reds also help create warmth and quiet.
- How about the tiny book? Well, try holding a heavy book in that position for long. This way the book (part of the subject) stands out against that dark wall, which it wouldn’t in her lap. And how else would she show off her elegant tea-party gesture that perfectly fits her pretty dress?
- Why is her dress highlighter-bright yellow against the dark wall!
- Why is she centered?
- And what is she sitting on, anyway?
- Well, her central position and that bright yellow dress say, “Hey, look at me! I’m the subject.”
- So we do, and Fragonard has succeeded in drawing our attention to his subject. Now we look more closely at her face, and think about her. How young is she? Is she wealthy or poor?
Style and/or Technique:
- Are things in the painting finished and smooth, or can you see the brushwork?
- Are all parts done with equal detail?
- Fragonard painted quickly, with loose brushwork that he didn’t blend much. The girl’s face is fairly detailed, but the ribbons are sketchy, and the book’s printing is just some lines of paint. Some critics would have said that this was okay for quick oil studies, but not for finished works.
- Notice the violet highlights on the girl’s face and in her hair and the rust colors of the shadows on the pillow. These unorthodox colors and the loose brushwork are reminiscent of Rembrandt and look ahead to the Impressionists, who were also accused of using funny colors and sketchy brushwork. Berthe Morisot, one of Impressionism’s women artists, was a grand niece of Fragonard, and Fragonard’s influence on Renoir’s paintings of women and children is clear.
Voila !! Subject + mood + composition + artist style = better understanding and appreciation of a beautiful painting!
Oh, you’re still wondering what she’s sitting on? So am I! But whatever it is, its long horizontal armrest does have a purpose. In your comments you can tell us what you think she’s sitting on, and in the activity post I’ll tell you what the long horizontal line is for.
Art Terms in this post
- Genre this often means a type of literature, music, but is also used in art for art that depicts scenes of everyday life, usually done in a realistic manner.
- Still Life/lifes paintings of an arrangement of everyday objects, that can include everything from flowers to sports equipment! And, yes, in art the plural is still lifes not lives!!
- Rococo art an over-the-top decorative art style in the 1700s that used swirls and curls on everything from furniture to horses’ harnesses. Palaces were decorated with this style, and paintings often portray the elegant life of the nobility. Caution: some Rococo artwork contains nudity and celebrates immoral courtly behavior.
You haven’t forgotten that little pinkie finger and the big fluffy pillow, have you?
Good, because an upcoming post will give you activities based on this painting, including how to draw the hand and the pillow! So sign up to receive my posts so you won’t miss the upcoming devotion and art activities.
Announcement: new format!!
- First post: overview of the artwork and artist.
- Second post: devotional thoughts based on the artwork. Even if it isn’t specifically Christian, God is Lord of all creation, and we can find His loving care everywhere.
- Third post: digging deeper into art, with hands-on, research, and “think about it” activities in art, writing, history, etc. based on the artwork. These can be adapted for all ages.
I hope this new format will better fit your busy life. I’d love it if you’d share my blog with your friends, especially those who want to help children learn to love art.
Taken together, I pray that the combined posts on each artwork will come alive from a Christian perspective.
My next post will be about how this painting can help remind us of the importance of our hearts to God! Sign up now!
But wait!! Here’s a really BIG announcement!! I now have a website, and I’m open for business to speak or do workshops in person or by Skype for children and adults. See the details at: