The cheeky art critic column
By Owen Hebbert, Contributor
In ‘Fantasy Figures’ the women are almost all strikingly pretty and the men are almost all shockingly plain, and I don’t know if that observation says more about Fragonard or myself.
I would tell you about the subject of this piece, but I’m afraid that its title has done rather a complete job of that for me.
This painting is by one Jean Honoré Fragonard, who made a lot of effort to be impressive as a painter only to be largely ignored during his own lifetime. People eventually got very excited about his work, but it wasn’t until many decades after his death and by then it was too late to do him any good. Perhaps one of the reasons that he was a flop was that he always forgot to put dates on his works. People can forgive a lot, but that’s just the sort of negligence that leads to you getting snubbed into a lonely death. A Woman with a Dog, for example, is believed to have been painted around 1769, but who knows? You might buy it on that understanding only to discover that its actual creation had been in 1770 or even 1767 and then what a sucker you’d be.
A Woman with a Dog (it has also been displayed as Femme Tenant un Chien or “Woman Holding a Dog”, for all the difference that makes) is part of a series of paintings by Fragonard known as his ‘Fantasy Figures’. I’ve gone over them and they seem a charming set of character studies. The women are almost all strikingly pretty and the men are almost all shockingly plain, and I don’t know if that observation says more about Fragonard or myself.
Probably the most unsettling image in all the Fantasy Figures is the dog in this painting. If you look closely, you’ll see that he’s a perfect lookalike for Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Some people have suggested that there is supposed to be a witty contrast in this image between the larger-than-life image of the woman with her oversized pearls, outrageous collar and full chin and the diminutive size of her beloved animal. These persons have not seen Bill Skarsgård’s 2017 performance and it shows. The real contrast in this image is between the woman’s wide-eyed innocence and the outlandish depravity of her pet.
Just look at that animal’s eyes and tell me I’m wrong.