Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Love Letter
This paper examines the piece The Love Letter, created in 1770 by Jean -- Honore Fragonard. The painting consists of oil on canvas and is 32 3/4 x 26 3/8 in. (83.2 x 67 cm) and originates in France. The painting was originally part of a series of decorative panels which were commissioned by Madame du Barry, one of the loves of Louis XV, for her house which was located at Louveciennes. However, once the panels were finished, she rejected them as being unsuitable for her tastes. This painting was executed before the entire series as a pitch to acquire her commission. The Love Letter in many ways is characteristic of Fragonard's style as a whole: it has warm and muted coloring with a strong eroticism which is present, though somewhat hidden. Fragonard is one who made an entire career from portraying the eroticism and decadence of the aristocracy in general, creating figures who were known for a certain amount of up-skirt action and occasionally an overtly sexual ease of motion: this became a theme that Fragonard would pursue for years upon years. Another common trait that Fragonard was able to infuse his work with was a certain amount of lightness which prevented it from hitting a certain vulgar note (artble.com).
The content of this particular painting is one which clearly orbits around the obvious Rubens influence of Fragonard: a plump healthy physicality of the subject, along with rosy highlights, slender fingers and toes, and hair which is often piled upwards that gives off the appearance of just having rolled out of bed. However, this painting presents a woman who has slightly more composure in her appearance. Her hair is piled high, but it is well styled; she wears a bonnet or headpiece on her head and is fully dressed in a gown of the aristocracy, at a sloped writing desk. A little dog sits on the chair behind her and they are both turned with their heads to the camera. There's a sense of voyeurism, intrusion and secrecy. One of the fundamental aspects of this perspective is that the contents of the painting strongly point to a sense of privacy that is being violated. The figures of the painting turn towards the spectator in a way which signals that the spectator is seeing something that he or she should not be seeing. There's a strong sense that the spectator has willingly or unwillingly violated some sort of element of the privacy or confidentiality of the figures of the painting.
The name of the painting is indeed the love letter for a particular reason, but even so, the inscription on the painting is not fully legible. Some have interpreted it as "A Monsieur Cuvillier" which can simply be interpreted as "to my cavalier": this means that the young lady portrayed in the painting is the one who has written the letter and how is sending it out. This deepens the meaning suggested by the love letter, as once the spectator realizes that it is the lady who has sent it out, it all becomes more intriguing even bordering on scandalous that this young lady is professing her love in some manner to a man who will forever remain hidden from the spectator. The colors are golden and there is a strongly coquettish attitude of the young lady. Even though the bulk of her body parts remain hidden from the spectator there is still a passionate glow which exudes from the painting.
The painting style is a clear example of a type of genre painting using the method of oil on canvas. A genre painting is generally one which demonstrates a scene from everyday life, most commonly depicting things like marketplaces, social events...
For the most part, there isn't an identity which can be attached to the subject of a genre painting, something that Fragonard deftly plays with in this regard. The identity of the young woman in the love letter is left open and yet concealed to the spectator.
The Love Letter is highly representative of the style of art at the time as the brushstrokes that Fragonard uses are very bold and highly visible. The bulk of the detail revolves around the main figure, while the outer edges of the canvas generally look almost unfinished, with a darker, wooden hue of paint. Fragonard's technique in this painting can be strongly characterized by a loose and fluid brushwork which is able to capture a certain transient frivolity of the times, which also captures how the political and social climate was always changing, in conjunction with fleeting fads and fashions (artable.com). Another very definable trend that Fragonard was known for was a commitment to a candy-colored palette which was riddled with pastels and soft pinks, yellows and greens which dominate the canvas. In fact a pastel palette dominates both the canvas and the figures themselves. Furthermore, there's also a strong commitments to pastoral lighting: there's a generally very soft and gentle lighting which can create the slightest blurriness to the painting and which can soften the overall representation. In this particular painting there is a warm tonality of pure gold which creates a delightful imprint on the painting. This makes it incredibly inviting while giving it a look of pure wealth and splendor. The subject and the setting of the painting already have an elite representation to them, though Fragonard is able to capitalize on that by creating an even more sophisticated look through this golden warmth that he infuses the canvas with.
Compositionally, the woman's face is at the center of the canvas, though her body slopes forward toward the desk, creating a pretty angle. It also creates a certain amount of harmony within the contents of the painting, as the writing desk also slopes upwards as well. There appears to just be one single light source which illuminates the canvas, and that is the source from the window. The window is able to gently flood the painting with a glowing, white natural light. This light source even falls on the dog as well. This anchors the dog to the painting, and also helps in creating a strong connection between the dog, window and the femme portrayed. Essentially, in this painting, Fragonard is able to create a deft series of diagonal lines which sustain a highly dynamic presentation within the painting. There's a strong sweeping quality to the overall painting, and that in combination with the covert body language of the subject and the contents of the painting, helps to develop a sense of intrigue and interest. The forms generally take rounded triangles and other such curved off geometric shapes. It's difficult to determine what aspect most influences the eye's trajectory, if it's line or color, as both are incredibly influential to the spectator. The warmth and softness of the canvas can't help but strongly influence the gaze of the spectator and the sweeping lines almost compete with this rich color palette. Collectively, the compositional elements create a sensual tone of harmony, balance and drama and they all work together to contribute to a strong sense of curiosity and intrigue.
It's also important to bear in mind that historical context of the painting. The painting is extremely representative of the Rococo period in France. "Louis XV's succession brought a change in the court artists and general artistic fashion. By the end of the old king's reign, rich Baroque designs were giving way to lighter elements with more curves and natural patterns. These elements are evident in the architectural designs of Nicolas Pineau… court life moved away from Versailles and this artistic change became well established, first in…
The most famous genre painting by David is undoubtedly the Death of Marat (1793) which depicts French radical Jean-Paul Marat slumped over in his bathtub while holding a letter which he obviously was writing just before being killed by Charlotte Corday. The overall narrative of this painting -- the knife/murder weapon lying on the floor, the entry wound just above Marat's heart, his right arm draped over the edge of