Foreshades of Grey (3)

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Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 10 ‘O mon ami, lui dis-je… Pardonne-moi mes torts, je veux les expier à force d’amour’, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1796 edition) Image source: Wikipedia

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Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 44 ‘Je ne lui permis de changer ni de situation ni de parure’
for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

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Illustration by Marguerite Gérard, who was the sister-in-law and pupil of Fragonard, of Letter 96 ‘Valmont entrant dans la chambre de Cécile endormie’ for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

The greatest novel about erotic power, gender politics and psychological manipulation was written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and first published in 1782. It became famous again towards the end of the 20th century when it was adapted into a play (1985) and subsequently a screenplay (1988) by Christopher Hampton. There have been several other adaptations, in period and modern dress, including the 1959 French film directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jeanne Moreau, the TV mini-series starring Catherine Deneuve (2003) and the Hollywood teenage treatment in three films.

Its influence extends far beyond officially credited versions; Merteuil and Valmont have reappeared in different incarnations ever since, as sexual, social or political schemers, because Laclos demonstrated psychopathological prototypes in their characters.

The original epistolary book is unsurpassed, both for the shock at the amorality and cruelty inherent in civilized society, and the subtlety of Laclos’ understanding of human nature, including his recognition of sexual equality far ahead of his time.

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Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Fragonard painted many voyeuristic, sexually suggestive scenes, far more blatantly erotic than the insouciance of The Swing – naked young girls rolling about with fluffy dogs, that sort of thing – with his characteristic joyful lightness of touch, but this painting, as noted on WGA, shows signs of a serious moral involvement on the artist’s part. There’s none of Boucher’s artificial pastoral sauciness; there’s real violence in the strong diagonals, the turbulent swirl of her skirts, the closest to a condemnation of forced seduction as rape we will find in Rococo art. “No” means no, here. The woman could be the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, struggling with her conscience as she succumbs to Valmont.

The temple of delight

PART TWO of ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES

fragonard fountain of loveFragonard, The Fountain of Love 1785 Oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, London.
Image source: WGA. In this painting, the purveyor of insouciance and erotica for the ancien regime breaks into the psychological dreamworld of the Neoclassicists and Romantics in his own decoratively moody way.
“I fly with HORROR from such a passion.” Sally Siddons.

The Tragic Muse’s eldest daughter’s love for the artist had been tested already. She had kept faith in him even after he had abandoned her for her younger sister, a pretty, airheaded girl of sixteen he felt, on impulse, he must marry. During this gaping wound in time, two years of “mortification, grief, agony”, a new kindling took place inside her. Under layers of suffering, she heard more clearly the music of her calling.

Passion reverberated in her, enriching her voice with sweetness, and her melodies with mortal yearning: “I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv’d in my heart, in my head, in every idea…”

She had turned a fallible man into her muse, and given birth to her own art.

the-marchioness-of-northampton-playing-a-harp-sir-henry-raeburn - CopySir Henry Raeburn, The Marchioness of Northampton playing the harp, c.1820.
Oil on canvas.
“I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv’d in my heart, in my head, in every idea…” (Sally Siddons)

A few weeks after his engagement to the younger daughter was made official, the shock of unaccustomed proximity to reality cleared the artist’s vision. He saw that he had mistaken his feelings. He confided in the Tragic Muse that it was not her younger daughter that he loved. It was the elder daughter. It always had been. His love was true; he had simply suited the wrong action to the word, an error that any artist or actor would forgive.
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