Born in Grasse in 1732, Fragonard moved with his family to Paris in 1738 and there studied with Chardin before entering the studio of François Boucher about 1749. In 1752 he won the Rome prize (Prix de Rome) for his painting Jeroboam sacrificing to the golden calf but he spent the following three years in the École royale des élèves protégés (Royal school for favoured pupils), before making the trip to Italy in 1756.
In Rome he met the French painter Hubert Robert. Together, they sketched in the open air and in 1761 toured Italy along with the abbé de Saint-Non. Fragonard returned to Paris in the same year, and in 1765 was accepted as an associate member of the French Royal Academy (agréé) with the presentation of an ambitious history painting of Coresus and Calirhoë (now in the Louvre collection).
Fragonard however, showed no further interest in obtaining official recognition and never presented a reception piece to the academy. He preferred instead to work for private collectors who admired the liveliness and subtlety of his technique while enjoying the charm and humour of his intimate, and often erotic, subject matter, such as in his renowned The swing 1767 (Wallace Collection, London), which depicts a flirtatious courtier observing a young lady on a swing being pushed by her cuckolded spouse.
Rinaldo in the gardens of Armida 1761-4, a wash drawing in the Gallery’s colleciton that has the tonal effect of a painting, demonstrates Fragonard’s light hearted and playful approach to literary themes. It takes an episode from the Italian writer Tasso’s epic Jerusalem delivered. Having fallen in love with the Christian warrior Rinaldo, Armida entices him into her enchanted garden to prevent him returning to the war.
Fragonard also painted landscapes and fantasy portraits (figures de fantaisie), which were bravura displays of technique more than true portraits. In 1773 he made a further trip to Italy visiting Rome and Naples and returning to Paris through Vienna and Prague. In the 1780s he made a series of over 100 lively drawings inspired by Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso, such as Orlando Furioso: Atlante, mounted on the hippogryph, swoops down upon Bradamante, though it is not known why he embarked on such an ambitious project.
Fragonard settled in 1789 in his native Grasse but moved back to Paris in 1792. The French Revolution put an end to many of his patrons and during the revolution he painted little, instead becoming closely involved in matters of arts administration, in particular the founding of a museum of French painting at Versailles. Though, along with François Boucher, Fragonard’s works are now considered to epitomise Rococo painting, when he died in 1806 he was almost forgotten as a painter and his reputation was only revived late in the 19th century.