My favourite painting: Xavier Bray

'When I gaze into the tiny painting, I’m magically transported to a luscious terrace garden in Italy.'

xavier brayLe Petit Parc, about 1761–2, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), 15in by 18in, The Wallace Collection, London W1

Xavier Bray says:
I go to this picture to escape. When I gaze into the tiny painting, I’m magically transported to a luscious terrace garden in Italy. It’s early summer, when the foliage is at its most abundant. Overhanging branches offer respite from the midday heat. I help the child gardeners prune and pot a few lemon trees. I then wander upwards, past an antique sculpture of Ceres and through the arboreal arch to look at the view beyond. On my way down, I take a dip in the pond hidden from view, which Fragonard alludes to in the subtlest of ways, as it exudes a golden light. It’s time for the next meeting.

Xavier Bray is the director of the Wallace Collection.

John McEwen comments on Le Petit Parc:
Fragonard was born in Grasse, France’s perfume capital; some say sunlight and life’s sweetness imbue his art. As a teenager and only surviving child, he was found a coveted place with a Parisian notary but was soon released for doodling. His doting mother took him to the studio of François Boucher, peintre du roi. Boucher passed him on to Chardin – a mismatch, but productive enough for Boucher to take him back.

Fragonard blossomed. Boucher’s studio suited his sensibility and expanded his skills and horizons. The master could work 12-hour days, but was an unashamed sensualist, loved the beau monde and theatre and surrounded himself with fine pictures and decorative objects. Unlike the Academy, he employed female models.

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As an apprentice, Fragonard had to supply designs for tapestries and china as well as the theatre and royal Courts beyond France. He learnt his trade by copying masterpieces in collections he would not otherwise have seen. Rembrandt, Rubens and Ruisdael became his ‘three Rs’. After four years, Boucher entered him for the prestigious Prix de Rome. He won and spent five years in Italy, career guaranteed.

This fantasy, done on his return, was inspired by Italian gardens, especially the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. The oaks show a debt to Ruisdael, the inner glow Rembrandt and the theatre. The poetry is his own.

The painting was bought by Sir Richard Wallace in 1867, forming part of the Wallace Collection, bequeathed to the nation in 1897. Its riches – Boucher, Fragonard and French 18th-century furniture and china to the fore – can be seen free any day in London’s Manchester Square, near Oxford Street.

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