Sunday, October 4, 2009

Beauty and Passion: Fragonard's "The Bolt"

I want to begin just by saying that I had never read or heard anyone else's interpretation of this piece until I read up on it for this blog. I have known and loved this painting for several years, and have now discovered that I have taken from it quite a different and darker meaning than apparently most others do. I feel that that is perhaps the loveliest thing about art; the emotions, meanings and stories that capture and wash over the viewer, feelings that craw inside and stay there that cannot be shaken off easily should someone tell you otherwise.

The Bolt, by Jean-Honore Fragonard
1778, oil on canvas, 73 x 92cm
Picture taken from ArtStor

Fragonard's The Bolt is one of those powerful pieces that can soak into your heart, climb up your spine to your brain and rest there for hours, days, years. It features a male and a female on the right hand side, in a intense position somewhere between an embrace and a struggle, both reaching for the bolt on the door in the top right corner. On the left, we see a lavish satin bed in complete disarray with lush red velvet draped over it from the ceiling. The lighting cuts the picture plane in half diagonally, so that the bottom right corner is filled with a harsh yellow light that appears to engulf the figures, while the top left is primarily hidden in shadow. There are also several mysterious little details that cause us to inquire about the scene, such as an apple on a table on the left near the bed, or a tiny bouquet of flowers left on the floor in the very bottom right. It's clearly an illustrative painting, but what it's illustrating isn't so clear. It creates a narrative that entices, that asks more than it answers, and keeps it in your mind while you chew on it.
It's the embrace that always gets me first. The man has his arm around the woman's waist, pulling her close. Her arm is pushed against his chin and neck. The amazing thing about this struggle is its force. Every muscle in his body is pulled taught where his skin is visible. His calves are tight, his veins are sticking out in his arms and legs. This is a strong, fast, passionate gesture. It doesn't just illustrate the intensity of the grab but the emotion, he has perhaps restrained himself from this moment as long as his body could manage. We are viewing a moment in which he has snapped, could not withstand the immediacy of his need for even a moment longer. Her head is bent back in a way that implies speed in the grab, her hand pushed in front of his face in such a panicked and reflexive gesture. The dent on the pillow and flatness of the drapes on the bed suggest that she had been lying there only moments ago. Her dress trails on the bed and her back foot hovers above the ground as if she has sprung from the bed with speed. Even the trails from both of their hair have suggested a mad dash in opposite directions for that door. She is reaching for the bolt, but he is already there -stronger, faster- and he is pushing it shut. She doesn't have a prayer.
The flowers on the floor- did the man bring them? Did he perhaps attempt the gentlemanly approach a get turned down? Did she rest on her bed and laugh at him as he held them? Perhaps, but he doesn't seem to be wearing the type of clothes he'd be strolling around in. They're not here though, he came in like this. Perhaps the flowers were from him, but before. Maybe he came in for whatever reason and beheld his treasured gift on the floor, to be laughed and looked down upon, and he could take no more.
Want. Temptation. Desire. Intensity. These themes are evident everywhere from the decadence of her satin dress and sheets to the lush velvet of the drapery. The heat and intensity of the sharp yellows, deep reds, shadowy depths of black. Want. Temptation. Desire. Intensity. The need in his muscles, the force in her hand, the harshness of the light. And to cap it -to completely shake the insides at its simplicity- the apple. That small tiny apple barely visible among the deep red of the drapes; that classic symbol of temptation and original sin.
When all the elements are intertwined it creates a scene that can truly punch you in the heart. But it's the title that completes it. The Bolt. It's about the bolt. Without that bolt, it's a struggle. Without it, the apple is simply and apple and the flowers are not tragic. But that bolt is there, and the man got to it first; that bolt has been shut and he's got the upper hand. That woman's struggle is over once it has been shut. It's game over, no way out until he gives her one. It is that bolt that was the goal for both of them to reach, it decided who was going to get what they wanted, and the call has been made.
It is also worth mentioning the beauty in which this has been painted- the accurate depiction of every texture that almost makes you think you can touch it. The skill in which the glow has encapsulated the figures, burning them into our mids. The artistry behind every shadow, every muscle, every wrinkle. Fragonard has skillfully created for us a believable reality. We can imagine the soft feel of silk, the deep softness of velvet, the cool hardness of the bolt, the hot damp skin. We can feel the heat of the light, smell sweat and stale roses. Fragonard creates this and invites us in. We feel present, involved, concerned, confused. Then the bolt is pulled shut; but it is not us locked inside the room, it is the room that becomes locked inside of us. Several years after viewing this piece for the first time, parts still come back to me- the harsh heat of the light, the intensity of the struggle, the mystery of embrace, the apple on the table.
It stays with you as an imprint- and it rightly should. this is an essential piece to see and remember because of its humanity. It illustrates for us our own internal feelings of passion, of need, of want, of fear, of temptation, of struggle, of all the endorphin-filled rush of one moment that consume one's whole mind, body, and spirit. It is not that we have not experienced this things. On the contrary, it helps us see beyond our personal experiences and into the beauty of those very moments.


  1. This was a great in depth interpretation of the piece. I can tell you are extremely passionate about Fragonard's work.

    -I'm glad you brought up how it would smell... I thought your other posts were lacking in their neglect of ALL the senses...

  2. Great review. Personal insight about what you felt about the work before researching it – and how art speaks to people in so many different ways – very good. You describe the emotional content well, and really help the reader see what you see, and note the important visual cues to what is going on in the work’s visual narrative.

  3. I loved this. I was in love with this piece before, but you put it into a whole new light. Thank you.

  4. I always thought he was unlatching the bolt to escape . . . and she trying to prevent him from doing so. So, like you say, the magic of art is how it can be interpreted so individually by its viewers.

    1. It is impossible that he was trying to escape and she was trying to prevent him: if this were so, the position of his hands would be different, and, more importantly, he would not be holding her, he would be pushing her, and she would not be pushing him.

  5. Thank you for this item. I've always adored Fragonard's work since seeing it as a young girl at the Timken Art Gallery (free art!) in San Diego.

    This painting always bounces around in my mind.

    Is he trying to escape her because she is obsessed and trying to control him?

    Is he locking the world out so that they can share a passionate encounter?

    Is he locking her in so that he can ravish her?

    Is this against her will?

    Is she a shrew whom he wants to escape from before she wakes up ... but she just woke up?

    So many thoughts.

    Gorgeous painting.

  6. I found your interpretation of "The Bolt" via Google search and found it so wonderfully intriguing and spot on that I'm now even more sad you didn't follow up with more posts..