Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Motherly love in ‘The First Steps’

Harvard Art Museums/President and Fellows of Harvard College

Motherly love and, to just the right degree, grandmotherly love are the subjects of this adorable painting, made in France just a few years before the Revolution. Silk dresses, obviously, play a big role too.

The painting, at the Harvard Art Museums, is called “The First Steps.” Yes, it’s cheesy — and not as affecting as Rembrandt’s famous pen drawing of the same subject. But it’s superb in its own way.

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The painting is attributed both to Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) and his sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837). Gérard was the younger sister of Fragonard’s wife, and she came to live with the Fragonard family after her mother died.

She was 14. The apartment they lived in just happened to be in the Louvre, which was spectacularly handy for someone just then falling in love with art. Gérard, who found herself especially drawn to the Dutch masters of the 17th century, became Fragonard’s pupil.

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Lucky her. Along with Watteau, Chardin, and Boucher, Fragonard was one of the great French artists of the 18th century. Praised in his youth as an artist of “astonishing talent, able to change from one style to another,” he decided, just as his official career was peaking, to turn away from conventional academic painting and to toss out portraits, landscapes, and sentimental genre scenes instead.

The French Academy despaired of his “frivolity and lack of interest.” But that’s exactly what I love about him.

Fragonard’s work expresses ease and nonchalance, a sense of things mattering to this degree but no more. His favored subjects — boudoirs, enclosed gardens, amorous conversations, and young children — suggest a natural affinity (biologically speaking) between eroticism, child-rearing, and sentimentality.

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In the 18th century the “erotic” was regarded as a civilizing concept, a necessary component in the attempt to find a perfect equilibrium between reason and feeling. It’s interesting, given this, to learn that, as the popularity of what one critic called Fragonard’s “slapped on, dashed off, well whipped up style” sagged in the early 1770s, he returned to a tighter, more “reasonable” style. And in effecting this transformation he was strongly influenced by the Dutch-loving Gérard.

The writings of Rousseau on childhood and education hover in the background of any 18th-century painting that chooses to show a child taking its first steps. This painting, which has a pendant hanging nearby, called “The Beloved Child” (it’s also attributed to both artists), celebrates simplicity, the joy of maternal feelings, and the innocence of childhood.

Meanwhile, Gérard’s developing mastery of fabrics (it was probably her hand behind the mother’s dress in “The First Steps”), suggest that she was getting on with her own ideas.

The First Steps

By Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Marguerite Gérard

At Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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