Lot 84
  • 84

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

1,800,000 - 2,500,000 USD
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  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard
  • The goddess Aurora triumphing over Night
  • oil on canvas


Michel Ephrussi, Paris;
With Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris;
His sale, Paris, Galerie Sedelmeyer, 16-18 May, 1907, lot 210, reproduced; 
With Eugène Sedelmeyer, Paris;
François Coty (1874-1934), Paris;
His deceased sale, Paris, Galerie Charpentier, 30 November-1 December 1936, lot 20, reproduced (incorrectly stating that the painting was painted for Louveciennes in 1770);
Anonymous sale, Paris, Palais Galliéra, 25 November, 1971, lot 22, reproduced in color, where purchased by the family of the present owner.


Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Exposition d'oeuvres de J.-H. Fragonard, 7 June-10 July 1921, cat. no. 4, reproduced;
Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, Fragonard (cat. by D. Sutton), 18 March - 11 May, 1980; Kyoto, Municipal Museum, 24 May-29 June, 1980, cat. no. 5, reproduced in color;
Paris, Grand Palais, Les Amours des Dieux: la peinture mythologique de Watteau à David, (cat. by C. Bailey), 15 October 1991- 6 January 1992, cat. no. 59, and pp. 383, 386-7, 388, notes 6,8, reproduced in color; the English version of the exhibition traveling to the Philadelphia, Museum of Art, 23 February- 26 April 1992, and Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, 23 May- 2 August, 1992, cat. no 59, pp. 479, 482-3, 484, notes 6, 8, reproduced in color;
New York, Wildenstein Gallery, The Arts of France, New York 2005, (cat. by J. Baillio), pp. 214-15, cat. no 80, reproduced in color.


Illustrated Catalogue of the Tenth Series of the 100 Paintings by Old Masters... Being a Portion of the Sedelmeyer Gallery, Paris 1906, cat. no 63, reproduced;
A. de Saint-Groux, "La Collection Sedelmeyer," in Les Arts, April 1907, p. 34, reproduced p. 35;
G. Grappe, H. Fragonard, peintre de l'amour au XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1913, vol I, reproduced, plate facing page 76;
Illustrated Catalogue of the Eighteenth Series of 100 Paintings by Old Masters... Being a Portion of the Sedelmeyer Gallery, Paris 1914, cat. no 78, reproduced;
G. Wildenstein, "L'Exposition Fragonard au Pavillon de Masan," in La Renaissance de l'Art Français, July 1921, p. 357;
The Illustrated London News, April 28, 1936, reproduced
"Les Collections François Coty," in Beaux-Arts, November 13, 1936, p. 5, reproduced;
G. Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard, London 1960, p. 197, cat. no 25, reproduced, p.  196, fig. 16;
D. Wildenstein and G. Mandel, L'Opera completa di Fragonard, Milan 1972, p. 87, cat. no 26, reproduced;
P. Cabanne, Fragonard, Paris 1987, p. 16, reproduced, p. 16, reproduced in color, p. 17;
J.P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, vie et oeuvre: catalogue complet des peintures, Fribourg and Paris, 1987, pp. 39, 270, cat. no 55, and under cat. no. 56, reproduced p. 38, fig. 41 and p. 279 (datable to circa 1755);
P. Rosenberg, Fragonard, exhibition catalogue, Paris 1987, p. 34, reproduced fig. 7;
P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris 1989, p. 74, cat. no. 27, reproduced;
P. Conisbee, "Exhibition Reviews: Paris, Philadelpha and Fort Worth, The Loves of the Gods," in Burlington Magazine, CXXXIV, February 1992, p. 137.


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This work has been restored and could be hung in its current condition. Originally, the painting was a Rococo shape with a sweeping curve cutting off the top two corners and a curve dipping towards the figures in the upper center. This shape has been eliminated with a lining that creates the rectangle that is seen at present. This painting was documented in this rectangular format at least since 1907. There is a similar curved addition along the bottom, which rises up in the center to include the toes of the foot and the flowers in the foreground. It must be said that the restoration and repainting here is quite effective, but unfortunately the lining is weakened, and the edge of this addition is visible, particularly in the sky. Within the original picture excluding these additions, the condition is excellent, and there are very few retouches added at all. There are a few retouches in the legs of the figure of the Goddess Aurora and slight strengthening in the arm of the figure of "Night," but all three figures are very well preserved.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Dynamically and dramatically composed, the Aurora should have left little doubt to his contemporaries that the young Fragonard would soon become one of the most important French artists of his day.1  Painted circa 1755-56 on the eve of his departure for Rome, the painting clearly demonstrates that the artist had fully absorbed the lessons both of his early masters, François Boucher and Carle van Loo, and was beginning to create his own interpretation of the Rococo style. 

Rather than a precise episode of classical mythology, Fragonard presents in the Aurora a picture of poetic temperament.  The Goddess of Dawn is clearly identified by the morning star which crowns her head, both hands full of pink flowers in recognition of her Homeric epithet of “rosy fingered”.  She is accompanied by a small, still groggy putto, and the bright flash of light which illuminates the painting from below begins to break through the swirling mists of nighttime, creating an ethereal glow across her semi-nude body.  Below, still covered in heavy shadow, is the figure of Night, herself still asleep, wrapped beneath a heavy blue coverlet.  Despite the narrative of the picture, well within the pictorial idiom that Fragonard’s contemporaries would have easily understood, subsequent scholars have at times misinterpreted the iconography of the Aurora.   As Colin Bailey has noted (see exhibited), the picture has sometimes been identified as the “Awaking of Venus” a subject that has no basis in antique literary or artistic sources. 

The Aurora was originally paired with another canvas representing a scene firmly taken from classical mythology, that of Diana and Endymion, now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (inv. 1960.6.2, see fig. 2).  The two paintings, both grand in scale and composition make a perfect pendant pair; they were originally on shaped canvases for placement within a boiserie surrounding.  The compositions are flawlessly balanced, with symmetrically positioned sleeping figures arranged across the bottom of each canvas underneath corresponding female deities positioned above.  The result was highly successful, with Colin Bailey even dubbing them “Fragonard’s most passionate and exuberant mythologies.”  Together, they must have been intended as an allegorical conceit, either as representations of the times of the day or-- given the drowsy figures of Night in the present work and Endymion in the Washington canvas-- paintings meant to decorate a boudoir or bedroom.2

While the Aurora represents the culmination of Fragonard’s youthful style and clearly indicates the direction in which the painter was later to head, it is also still very much a painting reflecting his artistic origins, particularly his apprenticeship with François Boucher.  The Washington Diana and Endymion, in fact, is so close in style to Fragonard’s master that it was attributed to Boucher until 1985.  The Aurora is more clearly independent, although as Bailey quite rightly points out (see Exhibited) it does find inspiration in Boucher’s masterpiece, the Rising of the Sun of 1753 (Wallace Collection, London).  There, the figure of the goddess Aurora is shown hovering above the main protagonists of Apollo and his attendants, her arms outstretched in a very similar pose as in the present painting.

The 18th century provenance of the painting and its pendant in Washington is sadly still unknown.  Both of the canvases, however, make their first appearances in the late 19th century in exceedingly distinguished collections.  The Diana and Endymion belonged to the Marquess of Hertford, a large part of whose collection would eventually form the Wallace Collection, London.  The pair must have been separated by mid-century, as the Aurora was soon after with another collector in Paris, Michel Ephrussi (1844-1914).  Ephrussi was a member of an international family of bankers and businessmen which had amassed a large fortune in finance and in the distribution of wheat, sourced at their hometown of Odessa.  By the late 19th century, however, the family had set up branches in Vienna, London and Paris, much like the Rothschilds with whom they intermarried.  The Ephrussi were collectors and connoisseurs of some repute; Michel’s own cousin Charles Ephrussi was a noted art historian and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts.  It is likely that the magnificent Louis XV-style frame on the Aurora was made for the painting while it belonged to Ephrussi, presumably for his house at 81 rue de Monceau. Paris (see fig. 1).

1.  Fragonard’s talent was recognized early on, but perhaps not without some reservation; however, Pierre-Jeanne Mariette’s comment that about the artist, “Fragonard… est disciple du Sieur Boucher.  Je lui souhaite un aussi bon pinceau que celui de son maître.  Je doute qu’il l’aît jamais ” has been resoundingly disproved by history.
2. As Bailey has noted (op. cit. p. 479), the two paintings are certainly connected, but may only be part of a group, which might, or might not, have comprised other canvases with parallel subjects.