The Young Philosopher: Caption This!

by John Holbo on December 16, 2014

You know what’s a good idea, if you have access to a university library? Checking out nice big fat art books. The older daughter and I have been undertaking a study of French art. She likes Daumier, not Picasso. The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas [amazon]. Daughter says: great stuff! I also checked out The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting [amazon], because I wanted to show both daughters a better-than-web-quality reproduction of that Fragonard swing from Frozen. Disney has been on a Fragonard kick since Tangled. (But I don’t suppose so many Crooked Timber readers are heavy into Disney princess films. But Tangled is really a masterpiece, I say.)

Anyway, older daughter’s reaction to Fragonard’s The Swing: is this some kind of ironic political protest? Stands to reason that Fragonard must have been the Stephen Colbert of rococo art. Book says it was painted in 1790. Presumably Fragonard read the newspapers. But wikipedia says it was painted circa 1767. That makes more sense.

The thing that’s great about Fragonard is … the trees. Just look at this ridiculous thing, The Meeting. I want someone to do a fête galante superhero comic in the style of Fragonard, with all the trees like so much Kirby Krackle, and all the heroes and heroines in satin, flouncing about. Imagine if Fragonard had painted Galactus and the Silver Surfer.

But I digress. In the Fragonard book, on the facing page, we get an amazing addition to my informal collection of silly pictures of philosophers.


The Young Philosopher (1790), by Louis-Léopold Boilly (who was a good caricaturist). Anyway, this picture needs a caption, and that’s where you come in. Our only clue – the young lady’s dainty digit points at an inscription which reads, “Ce qui m’allume m’enteint“; ‘what excites me, consumes me.’

What should the caption be?

“What if we’re all zombies? How could we tell?”

“It’s a damn shame about The New Republic.”

“It’s really about ethics in games journalism.”

“I don’t know why everyone is so hard on John Holbo in Crooked Timber comments. I think he’s so clever.”

I’m sure you can do better.



MPAVictoria 12.16.14 at 2:37 pm

“With notably rare exceptions conservatives oppose government interfering in people’s lives”

“With notably rare exceptions Christians oppose torturing defenseless prisoners.”


MPAVictoria 12.16.14 at 2:41 pm

Oooo Stolen from LGM this morning

“Wherever There is A Fight to Defend the Preposterous Arguments of People Responsible for Arbitrary Detention And Torture, I’ll Be There”


John Holbo 12.16.14 at 2:41 pm

“I’m thinking about going Galt.”


Dave Heasman 12.16.14 at 2:59 pm

that Fragonard swing from Frozen. Or Sailin’ Shoes?


Agog 12.16.14 at 3:01 pm

The dog: “I bet you’re thinking that idiot in the blue is the philosopher, aren’t you?”


MPAVictoria 12.16.14 at 3:06 pm

“I am all for government transparency, but I don’t want our enemies using this Report against us”


AB 12.16.14 at 3:42 pm

Can’t read the inscription, but shouldn’t it be “eteint” (hence “What lights me, extinguishes me”)?


J Thomas 12.16.14 at 3:49 pm

“Beige. I think we’ll have the ceiling painted beige.”


Sean Matthews 12.16.14 at 3:53 pm

I remember reading in an analysis of this painting that the girl would not have been wearing any knickers, and that the viewer would have been expected to know this.


J Thomas 12.16.14 at 3:56 pm

So which one really is the philosopher? Is it the old woman with the book? The girl wearing glasses?

And who was it that slit the little girl’s drum head? I can imagine that everybody wanted to, but who came up with the philosophical justification that made it OK?


Ewwwans 12.16.14 at 4:18 pm



DBW 12.16.14 at 4:49 pm

Is this also a ‘hand job,’ Mr. McGinn?”

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

“Cogito ergo… some?”


Phil Koop 12.16.14 at 5:17 pm

1) It’s not “an inscription”, it’s an inscription on a statue of Cupid.
2) Although a light burns in the eye of our “young philosopher”, Cupid looks rather dejected.
3) The speaker is the young woman.

So perhaps a cautionary remark on the futility of amorous ambition is in order. But how to tie in the young girl with the drum, the older girl with the doll?

“Um, you do know where babies really come from, right?”


Ronan(rf) 12.16.14 at 5:56 pm

“Bring me the doll, m’lovely, and we will exorcise the demon from your father”


JakeB 12.16.14 at 6:37 pm

“Where IS Carmen Sandiego?”


m c d 12.16.14 at 6:53 pm

“how could you? Ralphie will put his eye out with that thing!”


Teachable Mo' 12.16.14 at 7:00 pm

“What would it mean to say these stockings make my calves look fat?”


Zamfir 12.16.14 at 7:01 pm

“The young marquis de Sade and his women”


Dean C. Rowan 12.16.14 at 7:12 pm

“You put your left foot in…”


Lord 12.16.14 at 7:31 pm

But also replenishes


The Temporary Name 12.16.14 at 7:53 pm

“I thought the lanterns in Tangled were metaphorical sperm.”

Completely OT:


phosphorious 12.16.14 at 8:10 pm

Damn you MPAVictoria @2! Following your link led me to Althouse.

I have never read Ann Althouse and been improved by the experience.


novakant 12.16.14 at 8:13 pm

This great, I just love the Wallace Collection, best museum in London:

Hello I’m Chistobel and I’m Niamh and today we are going to be discussing decadence, agency and ambiguity in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s best known painting, The Swing. Here to give us some insider knowledge is Curatorial Assistant Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado.


MPAVictoria 12.16.14 at 8:45 pm

“I have never read Ann Althouse and been improved by the experience.”

That could be one as well!


mdc 12.16.14 at 9:12 pm

Recently dscovered that Chardin is mind-blowing, btw.


js. 12.16.14 at 9:18 pm

“I do think I prefer Velazquez myself.”


L.D. Burnett 12.16.14 at 9:40 pm

“Cogito ergo çum.”


Ben 12.16.14 at 9:55 pm

We have women in various stages of their lives, excited / consumed with, respectively:

Physical sensation (sound / sight)

One’s own craftwork, shaping the world in one’s image


Looking back and seeing the young explore the stages she went through.

They are consumed by their respective interests, not noticing what else is in the room (presumably located in the space from which the painting is viewed, since multiple figures are staring out of the painting)

In the midst of all this, a young man stares out at the viewer, as if sharing the viewers contemplation of the scene from a remote vantage point.

“The women may be concerned only with the hustle and bustle of human life, but we men share the loftier concerns of the abstract, don’t we,” he seems to say with his smirk

And it seems the painter would agree. If he didn’t put the same dull-eyed expression on the dog, the other figure staring at the viewer. To turn away from dull, everyday human affairs to abstract intellectual realms doesn’t make one more noble. It makes one more like a rather skittish looking dog.

That’s why Cupid is dejected. He doesn’t have any suitable material into which he can fire his arrow.

tl;dr “cogito ergo cum” obviously wins the thread


js. 12.16.14 at 10:31 pm

It took 26 comments, but the thread has obviously been won (as Ben also notes).


Paul Montgomery 12.16.14 at 10:41 pm

“French Ticklers, Black Mambos, Crocodile Ribs… Sheaths that are designed not only to protect but also to enhance the stimulation of sexual congress.” “Have you got one?”


LFC 12.16.14 at 11:59 pm

L.D. wins thread.
Dog may (or may not) win the painting.
And AB @7 is prob. right about the inscription.

And on the OP: “Disney has been on a Fragonard kick…” They both have a sort of saccharine, yukky quality, no? (Maybe not quite the right words; apologies to any fans of the painter.)


Joshua W. Burton 12.17.14 at 12:20 am

“Do you hear the people sing? . . . no, never mind.”


Nine 12.17.14 at 3:24 am

“I want someone to do a fête galante superhero comic in the style of Fragonard, with all the trees”

The closest you are going to get to a fete galante superhero is the work of Bissete and Totleben on Swamp Thing. IIRC, Totleben said somewhere that he had been influenced more by Alphonse Mucha .


Adam Roberts 12.17.14 at 8:04 am

“Tangled” is a great film, I agree; but two things about it make me uneasy. One is its hyperbolic White-ness; every character is White, down the horse, and not a person of colour visible anywhere; as if Disney has decided ‘hey we did the Black thing in “Princess and the Frog”, we’ve ticked that box, no need to do it any more’. Which would be a bad thing indeed, if true. Two: the central conceit, the dark-haired sorceress with the Jewish manner (‘so now I’m the bad guy?’ and so on) who imprisons and uses a blonde, Aryan child for her own occult practices: it comes rather too close to the Blood Libel for my taste. Apart from that: yeah. Great film.

Of course, “Frozen” is even more hyberbolically Nordic and White.


Adam Roberts 12.17.14 at 8:05 am

“…hyberbolically”? “Hyperbolically”.


Metatone 12.17.14 at 9:43 am

I think novakant wins the thread. That’s an excellent video – informative and yet gently reminiscent of “Look Around You.”


bad Jim 12.17.14 at 10:28 am

Or the Neon Parks parody for the first album by Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes?


bad Jim 12.17.14 at 10:35 am

(The Wallace Collection is rather wonderful. I happened upon it purely by accident, and live thousands of miles away, so of course the docents considered me a prime candidate for a supporter. Do I look like an idiot? I have to conclude that I do.)


Squirrel Nutkin 12.17.14 at 10:47 am

“Where IS Carmen Sandiego?” Clearly JakeB meant to ask “Where IS Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado?” and Novakant (23) has now answered this.


Squirrel Nutkin 12.17.14 at 10:57 am

I look at that picture and think: that must be the lid of the tin, so somewhere there is an open tin of cheap and tasteless toffees or “chocolate eclairs” going soggy and stale.


Dragon-King Wangchuck 12.17.14 at 11:52 am

Turn down for what. #yoloswag


Palindrome 12.17.14 at 4:30 pm

“Christ, what an asshole.”

Know your meme.


dbk 12.17.14 at 6:15 pm

“Is she or isn’t she, that is the question…”


JakeB 12.17.14 at 7:25 pm

@Adam Roberts at 34 — I think you meant “Hyperborecally”.


rea 12.17.14 at 7:40 pm

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady’s
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—As if that answered
anything.—Ah, yes. Below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which shore?—
the sand clings to my lips—
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
—the petals from some hidden
appletree—Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.–William Carlos Williams


J Thomas 12.17.14 at 8:03 pm

JakeB, that makes sense. I first thought it could be a nod to Hybernia which is not really far enough north. But Boreas is.


Peter Hovde 12.17.14 at 8:25 pm

“I’m prospectively pissed off that Daumier will do so few paintings.”


John Holbo 12.18.14 at 11:04 am

Thanks for comments. One thing like about this sort of thing is that it’s perfectly obvious Fragonard and Boilly have a lively sense of the silliness of their subjects. But it’s hard to tell where the irony stops and the complacency starts. (Someday historians will have to work that out about the present age as well, of course.)

Take our young philosopher. He is obviously a complete prat. The painter knows that. He looks like his dog. (Or, in case it’s the dog, he looks like the boy.) But how completely aware is the painter of the fact that his subject is a complete prat? I’m not sure. I think there is a sort of affection here for the precocious fellow – he wants to be a thinker! (Just like his little sister wants to be a mother!) It’s perfectly natural. To us, he doesn’t look so natural.


J Thomas 12.18.14 at 11:37 am

I think there is a sort of affection here for the precocious fellow – he wants to be a thinker! (Just like his little sister wants to be a mother!) It’s perfectly natural. To us, he doesn’t look so natural.

Apart from the poofy hair, and the pantaloons, and tights, and pointy shoes, and the coat with the flowing lace cuffs that would get into the gravy when eating, all of them just style, he looks natural to me.

Except for those calves. He looks like he spends every day running marathons. Presumably the hose are stuffed to make them look like that. But the crotch doesn’t look stuffed. Or at least not much. I guess styles differ.


rea 12.18.14 at 9:43 pm

it’s perfectly obvious Fragonard and Boilly have a lively sense of the silliness of their subjects. But it’s hard to tell where the irony stops and the complacency starts.

“Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—As if that answered


Agog 12.19.14 at 2:55 pm

Stockings definitely wadded, yes.

[I discovered the Wallace Collection in Seth’s An Equal Music, which I need to reread… I try to go back to the museum every couple of years. When one of the (favoured) paintings is away on loan it hurts a tiny bit.]

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