In 2013, the Museum of Fine Arts acquired “The Watering Place” and “The Rock” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. These pictures seem to form a pair in that their subjects, composition, and dimensions are very similar.
However, a material analysis revealed that “The Watering Place” was probably painted in about 1765 and “The Rock” in the 1780s. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that the two works were reunited in François Hippolyte Walferdin’s prestigious collection. In spite of the success that Fragonard enjoyed in his early days at the Royal Academy, he turned his back on the brilliant formal career he had been promised and devoted himself to genre painting, imaginary landscapes, and figures.
These two pictures demonstrate his admiration for 17th-century Dutch painting, which was prized by Parisian collectors in the second half of the 18th century. As in the canvases of the “Golden Age”, narration is reduced to a minimum with nature appearing to have been captured at a moment of great intensity, when trees, clouds, animals, and people are inspired by the same emotion. With just a few touches, Fragonard succeeds in giving these scenes a human scale and an air of gallantry.
In “The Watering Place”, a couple lies in a field talking, oblivious to the day's end. The vermilion of the woman’s skirt draws the viewer’s eyes. In “The Rock”, a woman perched on her horse talks to the cowherd walking beside her. A few brushstrokes suffice to convey the imperceptible movement of the clouds, the brisk strokes suggesting the rippling of the foliage.