Le concours / The Competition
Coloured brush drawing over black chalk on ribbed hand-made paper
Inv. No. 1233
43.4 × 34.4 cm
In this light-hearted picture, Fragonard shows both the earnest striving and the carefree attitude of children competing with one another in the context of an elegant social circle. He may have experienced a scene such as this in the Parisian townhouse of his patron, the Duc de Chabot, where the latter, together with his wife Elisabeth Louise de la Rochefoucault, maintained a private drawing academy in addition to the other activities he financed. The guests who frequented the house included artists like Fragonard and his friend Hubert Robert, both of whom gave drawing classes to wealthy dilettantes, as well as other contemporaries such as the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). In a letter dated 1 May 1778, Mozart told his father Leopold how he had given a performance in the Hôtel de la Rochefoucault, complaining bitterly about the assembled company who were busy drawing the whole time instead of paying attention to his music.
A similarly relaxed mood seems to prevail in the contest which Fragonard depicts here. In a stately interior, a lively group of children have gathered around a table, where they are illuminated by the glow of bright daylight. With a greater or lesser degree of concentration, they devote themselves to their reading and writing. Two extravagantly dressed ladies are assisting them, while the young parents, standing in the background, are delightedly observing their offsprings’ efforts.
With a light, virtuoso touch, Fragonard used a brush to go over the initial drawing in black chalk. Thanks to the interplay of grey and brown washes with translucent watercolours, he succeeded brilliantly in creating a transparency that nonetheless gives the illusion of reality, doing justice to all the different materials, from the stone pilaster to the shimmering red fabric of the children’s clothes.
Following this composition, in which every detail is carefully arranged, Fragonard drew a companion piece as a kind of sequel to it (He Has Won the Prize! in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York). It is most unlikely that he carried out the drawings at the actual location of the events. But when he set out to make his comment on education, a topic of keen interest during the Enlightenment, he may very well have drawn from scenes he had witnessed in person.
As a former pupil of François Boucher, Fragonard had initially favoured black and red chalk as his medium, but in the 1770s he turned to brush drawings. The Städel collection encompasses a highly expressive group of works from very different phases in the career of this gifted artist.
- Saint Michel explique au Silence la mission qu’il doit remplir/The Archange Michael and the Silence before the Cave of Sleep more