NEW YORK -- Perhaps because his paintings are almost edibly delicious, it's said that ice cream caused the death of Jean-Honore' Fragonard. He licked his fatal glace, so the story goes, while strolling through the gardens of the Champ de Mars. The scene can be imagined: It is Paris in high summer. The sky is blue, the air is soft, the sunshine flows like honey. As the breezes stir the leaves, one hears another sighing -- a giggling, a panting, a rustling of satins -- as unembarrassed lovers embrace in the blossomed bowers of the park. All sin is here dissolved in confectionary sweetness. That's the sort of scene he painted. And what a place to die.

But that teasing little cameo, while not entirely misleading, does the artist an injustice. It makes him seem a painter of luscious, lightweight froth. He was instead a master. His awesome retrospective -- now on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- reveals an immortal, one of the most impressive painters in the long story of French art.

It is true his famous pictures -- with their flying skirts and saucy jokes, their unmade beds and powdered wigs -- are drenched in perfumed excess. And precisely for that reason, often offhandedly dismissed.

I once asked Kenneth Clark -- Lord Clark had just completed filming the "Civilisation" series -- which episode in Europe's art he admired least. He paused, and then responded, "France, the 18th century." Too many paintings of the time, he said, were saccharine, and giddy, and blind to human suffering. "However," he continued, smiling at the memory, "I own a beautiful Fragonard."

Less forgiving scholars still find him hard to take. Fragonard, they argue, served a corrupt class, happily encouraging its dalliances and decadence (his famous scenes of Love, now in the Frick Collection, were painted on commission for the mistress of the king). Marxist critics note that his world is incomplete, that no trace of his anguished times -- the screaming at the barricades, the sufferings of the masses, the falling of the guillotine -- interrupts or shadows the brightness of his art.

All of this is true. But see his retrospective, and none of it will matter. The painter here revealed, though wholly apolitical, helped forge a revolution. He is, it seems to me, among the first truly modern masters in the history of art.

The textbooks contend otherwise. They contrast him with Chardin, that painter of the humble truth, or pair him with Boucher, for he studied with both masters. They plant him in the past. But the Fragonard encountered here prophesied the future. He patiently absorbed -- as no other Frenchman had before -- the art of Venice and of Rome, of Amsterdam and Florence, the whole history of painting, and then transformed what he had learned into something wholly new.

His garden fe~tes and saucy jokes, his lapdogs and his putti, conceal a deep seriousness. The act of making pictures is the true subject of his art.

Fragonard could draw as well as any Frenchman ever. And he painted with a brio that takes the breath away. You have to see his canvases, and his extraordinary drawings, to appreciate their power. Reproductions will not do.

His quickly painted portraits (most often done from memory) are not merely likenesses. His images of pastorals have a vividness belied by the leafy scenes portrayed. The brilliance of his brushwork, its swift and easy sweep, its casual exactitude, is almost unbelievable. It is the movement of the artist's hand that dominates these images, that calls them into life.

Fragonard, writes Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre in his magisterial catalogue, "abolished the distinction ... between the sketch -- the 'premie`re pense'e' -- and the finished composition ... The brushwork became the painting ... Can we go further and consider Fragonard as the father of pure painting -- even of 'action painting?' No artist before Fragonard had involved the spectator so closely in his craft."

His paintings, as one looks at them, seem to grow before one's eyes. His subjects may be gossamer, but his pictures have about them an odd distance from the dream world. They smell of ink and oil, turpentine and chalk. The painter's at his easel, busy at his craft -- and the viewer is invited to watch him as he works. Line by line and stroke by stroke -- and with something much like passion -- he builds his works in time.

That eerie sense of being there is Fragonard's invention. He somehow thawed the stillness -- and altered the humility -- of his country's art.

An allegiance to the logical -- to a clear and timeless clarity -- has been apparent in French painting since the days of Poussin. That instinct for analysis hardens much French art -- it chills the stern figures of Jacques-Louis David, the gray still lifes of the Cubists, and the angular, mechanical nudes of Marcel Duchamp. Beside it runs another theme, equally long-lived -- an affection for the minor key, the intimate, the small. One sees that homage to the humdrum in Chardin's loaves and berries, in the oysters of Manet, and the interiors of Vuillard.

Both these strains are interwoven in the art of Fragonard. That Gallic love of structure is apparent in the way each mark in each picture seems a sort of moving part. And when Fragonard is at his best, he does not smooth or polish. Each chalked line and each brush stroke is just what it appears to be, a working artist's gesture as palpable and present -- and as mighty in its modesty -- as an apple by Ce'zanne.

What still seems new about his paintings is their mood of liberation. "Never before," writes Rosenberg, "had the brush so imperiously subjected the canvas to its own laws." That sense of free, dynamic movement -- of self-sufficient gesture -- has since activated pictures by artists as diverse as Degas and de Kooning. In France, it appears first in the art of Fragonard.

Of his pictures at the Met (in all there are 220), perhaps the most amazing are his strange figures de fantasie, his "imaginary portraits" of people he admired -- the savant Diderot, the dancer Mlle. Guimard, or the Abbe' de Saint-Non, chief patron of the painter. They're dressed in gaudy finery. The women wear white ruffs, the men wear heavy chains of gold or rest their hands on swords.

These swift, peculiar pictures are not portraits in the classic sense. Fragonard, writes Rosenberg, "never really aimed at capturing a likeness ... nor did he try to reveal the psychology of of the sitter." Each portrait seems instead a sort of visual explosion -- designed to show the viewer how quickly, and how furiously, Fragonard could paint.

His brush appears to fly. Sometimes, as in "La Liseuse," his masterful depiction of a young girl reading, from the National Gallery of Art, he scratches in the paint with the handle of his brush.

One "imaginary portrait," that of M. de La Brete`che, the Abbe' de Saint-Non's brother, bears an old notation on its stretcher. It says the work was painted "in one hour's time," and you do not doubt it. The sitter is a pretext. The portrait is a picture of the act of making art.

The images of Fragonard are very often naughty. Lovers hide in closets. Artists lift their models' skirts. Young women in their night clothes spank each others' bottoms. He often takes his viewers behind the bedroom door. In one of his best drawings, "A Metamorphosis of Jupiter," the god -- who's making love to an ecstatic princess -- seems unable to decide whether to appear as an eagle, or a shower of gold, or a burning cloud. The famous Fragonard now known as "Young Girl in Her Bed Making Her Dog Dance," is not a painted essay on the training of a household pet, but an open invitation to look between her soft pink thighs. Though the work was copied often in engravings, a number of the prints bore a warning to art dealers: "This subject should not be displayed."

For reasons fairly obvious, these risque' Fragonards helped ensure his fame when, in the 19th century, his long-neglected pictures slipped back into fashion. While these works may still offend, Rosenberg, in their defense, provides an 1860 quote from Paul de Saint-Victor:

"Fragonard is the poet of erotic painting: he avoids the indecency of the genre through speed of execution. Art must run over these burning coals; only a slight headiness can excuse the licence and the orgies of the brush ... Indecency begins with finish ... Something crude that is slickly painted is unforgivable ... Thus, I prefer by far Fragonard's galant jottings to his famous painting {"The Swing," in the Wallace Collection, London} in which everything is emphasized, indicated, underlined ... It is not fitting for such a free tale to be so neatly transcribed."

Fragonard's most polished works -- say, his "Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols" (for which he won, at 20, the Grand Prix de Peinture, or his "Psyche Showing Her Sisters the Gifts She Has Received from Cupid" (a canvas he prepared for the king's apartments at Versailles) -- now seem somewhat overblown. He's best when he is fastest. He is quite capable of drawing wonderfully from life -- see his "Portrait of a Seated Man in a Three-Cornered Hat" or his "Half-Length Portrait of a Neopolitan Woman" -- but he does so only rarely. Fragonard cared more for the realm of art than he did for real life.

He was born in 1732 (like Washington and Haydn); he was a glover's son (like Shakespeare). Rosenberg observes that his letters have all vanished -- "if, indeed, he knew how to write."

Rosenberg describes him: " 'Rotund, well fed, lively, always alert, always cheerful ...' -- this is the popular image of the 'bonhomme Frago,' 'red-cheeked,' 'sparkling-eyed,' 'tousled, and gray-haired,' who was beloved by all. It is known that he was short, just under 5 1/2 feet. He had gray eyes and pockmarked skin ... He {also} seems to have been a secretive man, lacking in self-confidence, moody, capricious, mysterious ... incapable of finishing his projects."

It is true he sold his pictures to the richest of the rich, and won the Prix de Rome, and painted for the king. But when considering his pictures, and his eagerness to please, one cannot help suspecting he had little education. What he learned he learned from art.

His memory was awesome. As a boy he produced copies, one after another, of the large and complex paintings he had seen in churches. Everything he'd looked at, and everything he dreamed of, Fragonard could draw.

As a young man he was hired as a sort of living camera by the Abbe' de Saint-Non, who made a long, slow trip through Italy and employed Fragonard to make pictures of his travels. He drew gardens, villas, ruins and many works of art. Fragonard has left us some 2,700 drawings, and of these there are hundreds that are copies of the masters.

He copied Guido Reni and G.B. Tiepolo, Raphael and Rembrandt, Rubens, Veronese, Luca Giordano, Ruisdael, van Dyck. No wonder he could draw in a dozen different styles. Those of us surrounded by photographs and catalogues and well-stocked art museums can only marvel at the rich library of images with which he stocked his mind.

Fragonard could draw in a score of different manners -- with washes and colored chalks, with the brush and pen. His versatility amazes. But what he cared about was styles, surfaces, devices. Fragonard could paint like the Dutch, the Bolognese, the Romans, the Venetians, and make their art his own. But profound, soul-stirring poetry (say, like that of Titian), or deep, compelling substance (say, like that of Rembrandt) interested the painter little if at all.

When he painted a` la Rembrandt, the lighting was just right, and the colors were correct, but the old men's faces he depicted feel summarized, invented. The life within these Fragonards is sensed within the movements of the artist's brush. When he painted his "Dutch" landscapes in a manner much like van Ruisdael's, he often added to his moody views small scenes of flirtations as if to tell his audience, don't take these views too seriously. They are only works of art.

That painting springs from painting, that art feeds upon art, is now taken much for granted. But nowhere in the art of the 18th century is that sort of referential knowingness seen as clearly as it is in the art of Fragonard.

The Revolution ruined the market for his pictures. With the rococo out of favor, and the colder, more self-righteous neoclassical in fashion, the master ceased to paint.

Fragonard survived -- in large part because his friend David, a revolutionary hero, gained him a position organizing what has since become the greatest art museum in France.

Between 1792 and 1797 Fragonard lived within the Louvre, "attending," writes Rosenberg, "to every aspect of the museum: the wages of the guards, the works of art that were seized ... , keys and closets; opening hours; the installation of the paintings ... " In 1805, though given a small pension, he was evicted from the Louvre. A year later he died.

Though certain major works -- Mme. du Barry's paintings from the Frick, the Wallace Collection's "The Swing" -- were not available for loan, the show still overwhelms. What a draftsman! What a painter! The accompanying catalogue could not be much better. The Fragonard retrospective, which was seen last year at the Grand Palais in Paris, will close in Manhattan on May 8.