Great Works: The Stolen Kiss (1780s), Jean Honoré Fragonard

Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

There are grand acts of heroism in the art of painting. Protagonists emerge from mythology and history, striking deeds, suffering torments, bound to doom. There is plenty of murder, and plenty of slaughter. But the heroic body is also stuck in one particular situation. It is torn, tugged this way and that, involved in conflicts and choices. It shows no flesh wounds. It is in the pull of a deep dilemma.

Or take another pull. Fragonard's The Stolen Kiss is an innocent tale of teen love. A boy, a girl: it could easily be Cherubino and Barbarina from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. As in the opera, this boy looks like a "breeches" role, offering the most tempting kiss, pressing the softest cheek to cheek. And it's a seduction that holds a sudden climax: his brief clasp, her possible retreat. The story implies a quick event.

But look at that the picture as a whole. This seduction contains a lot of business. It's a matter of structure and packed with telling details. The moral dilemma of her kiss – will she, won't she? – is theatrically acted out. She plays the picture's hero. Her position is torn.

This is one of those scenes with a crucial choice, and even though the subject has the lightest and most comic fate, it is a fate all the same. The main drama is laid out across the entire width of the canvas. It follows a trail, a journey, a delay. This girl's life is given a slow-motion distance, from one side of the picture to the other. This amorous episode lasts a second. It feels like forever.

The stage, for example, is set between two doors. Both doors appear with echoing openings. One stands at the left and the other stands at the right. The girl stands between them – her dilemma pulling between risk and safety. There is that saucy pink curtain, admitting the boy, his knee just pushing in, and with his foot discretely trapping the bottom of this girl's dress.

And then, through the other door, there is a view to a room beyond. A sociable group of matronly figures are together, assembled at a game of cards. She should be one of them. But she is here, briefly escaping from their control. This is one of the ways the picture is stretched out.

But there is a more intimate journey, moving along her own self. It begins from the start of her kiss; it concludes at the end of her wrap. It establishes a very long diagonal and continuous gesture of both body and fabric. It is her dominant story, and it shows us how her conscience operates under pressure.

Look at that straight, firm arm between shoulder and wrist. It looks almost like determination. The boy may be held out again him. Her face is turning away. This kiss may be resisted. But then there is the distance between that wrist and the end of that wrap – and the story begins to unravel and finally fizzle out.

It is her gauzy garment, and it is held in her narrow and tenuous grip, in her delicate hand. It travels, first in droops, then in falling knots and waves. It is borne along in gossamer lightness, and is supported for a while on this red solid wooden table. But at last it drops, in a flimsy, floppy, flaccid wisp, in mid-air. (Its hem just overlaps the room beyond – indicating the place where she could be.)

So this picture traces a long meandering precarious strung-out line, like a path or a rivulet. And in this unfolding gesture, the figure's moral shakiness is drawn out too – from almost resistance to almost surrender. Maybe she will drop that wrap. Maybe she won't. Her body, anyway, is pulled right over towards the boy.

But she still stands there, holding her potential balanced position. Her feet remain, staying in the middle of the floor. She might lean back away. So again her choice is not wholly lost, and she is not wholly victim. She is full of weakness, daring, tremors, pleasures, possibilities. She is a hero, decided between this way and that way, and tugged this way and that way. This complicated story tells her psychology.

Her body shows us something else, though, which upstages all choice and all uncertainty. It is her spectacular blazing centre. Look at her hips, thighs, open, wide, with their great rising curve. Look at the silk of her dress, with it bright highlights and its rich folds.

This is her sure unavoidable sexual focus. And whatever she might imagine, The Stolen Kiss insists on more. She is beyond heroism. Her dilemma may rock her from side to side. But her exposing desire burns out.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) painted a picture more famous than his name – 'The Swing'. His range is quite wide: nymphs, light pornography, portraiture, a fantastic white bull, in beautiful brushwork. He escaped the guillotine, but the French Revolution was the end of his career.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary