Ruggiero Meets Two Young Women on Unicorns
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Ruggiero Meets Two Young Women on Unicorns

Stephen Ongpin Fine Art

Beginning in the late 1770s, perhaps to compensate for a lack of painting commissions brought about by a change in taste in favour of Neoclassicism, Jean-Honoré Fragonard began to turn his considerable talents towards illustrations from literary texts. His work in this genre – numbering almost three hundred drawings in total - resulted in some of his most exuberant, atmospheric wash drawings, perhaps best epitomized by the series of large sheets depicting scenes from Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th century epic poem Orlando furioso. Other literary works illustrated by Fragonard include editions of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the Contes et nouvelles en vers of La Fontaine. While these drawings were greatly admired in the 19th century and were collected by the Goncourt brothers and Baron Roger Portalis, among others, none of them appear to have ever been translated into printed images.

First published in full in 1532, the romance epic Orlando furioso (Roland Enraged) by the Italian poet Lodovico Ariosto, with its themes of love, war, chivalry and magic as seen in the adventures of two knights, the Christian Orlando (or Roland) and the Saracen Ruggiero (or Roger), was a source of inspiration for artists throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. It was probably in the 1780s that Fragonard produced almost 180 large drawings of scenes from Ariosto’s poem, a series which, as one scholar has noted, is ‘notable for its radical freedom of execution and surprising lack of conventional “finish”. Strokes of black chalk and gray wash intertwine in these drawings with an openness and scribbling energy comparable only to Fragonard’s bravura large-scale oil sketches. The images leave ample room for the viewer’s imagination to complete the details, and they retain a vivid sense of the inspiration, energy and spontaneity that went into their making.’

Although Fragonard’s Ariosto drawings are among the finest and most admired of his works – as one modern scholar has noted, ‘the drawings show Fragonard in fullest expression of his artistic imagination and expression’ - the dating and purpose of these pen and wash compositions remains a matter of conjecture. While the drawings are consistent in style, they are arguably too free and spirited in handling to have served as designs to be engraved for book illustrations. As the scholar Karl Parker has written, ‘There is no evidence of Fragonard having been commissioned by, or having enlisted the support of, either a patron or publisher…Rather it would seem that the sheer joy of creation, heedless of any thought of after-use, fired the imagination and quickened the hand of the artist. Such was the case, too, with those amazingly prolific Tiepolo series.’

It has been suggested that Fragonard may have read Ariosto in the original Italian, since the drawings capture details of the stories that are true to the original text. However, he may never have completed the project, as the vast majority of the subjects that the artist illustrated are taken from the first sixteen cantos of the poem, while very few seem to be based on the remaining thirty cantos.
As Parker points out, however, ‘Fragonard studied his Ariosto with searching minuteness. He held himself very close to the printed line. But did he really capture more than the poet’s words?…Fragonard’s drawings are always admirable, sometimes ravishing; but they are much more Frago than Ariosto. To look at them who would guess (if he did not already know it) that the poem was cast in the severely formalized mould of the ottava rima? Who would think that their exuberant vivaciousness, rising on occasion to really dramatic effects, illustrates a narrative which, with all its beauties, its melody, its music, is today as unreadable as a whole as the Fairy Queene?’

The present scene is taken from Canto VI of Orlando furioso, lines 68-70, and depicts the heroic knight Ruggiero, who has been attacked by the monstrous forces of the sorceress Alcina, as he is approached by two women riding unicorns. (One holds out her hand to him, while the other, behind the first, remains difficult to see.) The arrival of the two women allows Ruggiero to defeat the horde of grotesque figures that he had been battling, some of which can be seen lying in the foreground of the present sheet.

As a translation of Tasso's text describes the scene:

'Be that as it may, better were he dead
Than be rendered captive by such a crew.
And yet, behold, from out the gate, instead,
That portal in that wall, of golden hue,
Two maids appeared, who both seemed nobly bred,
As witnessed by their clothes, and manner too;
Not raised, in truth, among the common herd,
But nurtured in some palace, in a word.

Each maid was seated on a unicorn;
Whiter than whitest ermine was each steed.
Both maids were lovely, and their garb was worn
In such a gracious fashion, rare indeed,
That he who looked upon them would have sworn,
Divine sight one, who viewed that pair, would need
To judge between those two, who did embody
Gracefulness on this side, and there, Beauty.

These lovely ladies rode into the field,
Where Ruggiero held his ground alone,
And each a kind hand to our knight did yield.
Like chaff, away the villains now were blown;
While he, with blushes scarce to be concealed,
Filled with shame, his thanks to them did own.
And then, content to wait upon his fate,
Returned with them, to pass the golden gate.'

François Hippolyte Walferdin (1795-1880) owned around eighty paintings and more than seven hundred drawings by Fragonard, whose reputation he helped to revive in the 19th century. While Walferdin presented his collection of paintings to the Louvre, his collection of drawings from the Ariosto series, numbering 137 drawings, were acquired en bloc at the posthumous Walferdin sale by the champagne maker Louis Roederer (1845-1880), who died very soon afterwards. The drawings passed to his nephew, Léon Olry-Roederer (1869-1932), who sold them in 1922, via the London dealers Agnew’s, to A. S. W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), an American dealer in rare books and manuscripts.

Provenance: Part of the complete set of Ariosto drawings by Fragonard which were among the contents of his studio at the time of his death, and with later provenance as follows:
Probably by descent in the family of the artist
Acquired in the 19th century, probably from the artist’s descendants in Grasse, by François Hippolyte Walferdin, Paris
His posthumous sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot [Escribe], 12-16 April 1880, lot 228 (‘136 compositions. Magnifique série de dessins originaux à la pierre noire et laves au bistre pour l’illustration de Roland Furieux.’)
Louis Roederer, Reims
By descent to his nephew, Léon Olry-Roederer, Reims and Paris
Sold through Thos. Agnew and Sons, London, to Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, Philadelphia, in 1922
Acquired from his estate by John Fleming, New York and Larchmont
Acquired from him by an American private collector in 1955
Thos. Agnew and Sons, London, in 1978
The present sheet sold by them to Nina Rodale Houghton, Chestertown, Maryland in c.2005.

Literature: Elizabeth Mongan, Phillip Hofer and Jean Seznec, Fragonard Drawings for Ariosto, New York, 1945, p.79, pl.134 (as illustrating Canto XXXIV, 24: Lidia Advances to Meet Alceste); Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey, Fragonard et le Roland Furieux, Paris, 2003, pp.110-111 and p.381, no.40; Sarah Catala, Fragonard: Collections privées, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2022, p.72, no.25.

Exhibition: Paris, Galerie Éric Coatalem, Fragonard: Collections privées, 2022, no.25.

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