These portraits almost certainly date from the early 1770s, one of the most brilliant and fertile periods in Fragonard's career. They are very similar in both subject and style to a number of other paintings from this date, whose crowning glory is Fragonard's series of four panels depicting The Triumph of Love, painted in 1772 for Madame du Barry for the Salon en cul-de-four of her new pavilion at Louveciennes, and today in the Frick Collection in New York.1 Although ultimately rejected by Madame du Barry in favour of works by Vien, they represent the crowning moment of Fragonard's career and represent the greatest decorative ensemble painted in France in the 18th century. These portraits share with the Frick panels a heightened sense of colour and brilliance of touch as well as a similar approach to their subjects. Just as the protagonists in the Frick paintings disport in garden settings profusely strewn with roses - the flower sacred to Venus, the Roman goddess of love - so too both portraits take up the theme, one girl with a garland of pink roses around her neck, the other taking roses from a bush and tying them in her hair with yellow and blue ribbons. Indeed, so close do they come to the Frick panels, that Joseph Baillio, writing in the 2006 exhibition catalogue remarks upon the striking similarity between the blonde haired girl in these portraits with another in L'Amant couronné or The Lover crowned in New York, suggesting that one and the same model may have served Fragonard for both works. Certainly the two paintings complement each other closely: the pale yellow satin of the blonde girl's dress and her garland of pink roses, is echoed by the pink robe of her companion, tied behind with a brilliant yellow sash. A very visible pentimento in the latter painting shows that the pink dress had originally been extended by Fragonard further to the left.
The present works belong to a group of roughly a dozen paintings of oval format and similar subjects which Fragonard seems to have painted at this date. Their original purpose or subject is not, however, known. It is clear that they were intended as pendants, and they may even have been portraits. Two very similar oval portraits, said to depict two sisters of the Colombe family, in which the sitters are again shown at half length with a profusion of roses, were formerly in the collection of William Randolph Hearst in New York2 and another, now in a private collection, shows a young lady of the Guimard family crowned with roses.3 Other portraits from this group, some again traditionally said to depict members of the Colombe family, show their sitters in romantic or classical guise as Venus, Amor or Minerva, though some were clearly unlikely to have been intended as likenesses. Such subjects were of course ideally suited to Fragonard's extraordinary virtuosity, and his (unique) independence of official circles in Paris4 allowed him the freedom to concentrate on the so-called 'lesser' genres that were more suited to his talents. Although his contemporaries and supporters such as Diderot thus accused him of compromising his artistic integrity, Fragonard evidently found a ready and eager market for such works, executed with a remarkable freedom of the brush. As Pierre Rosenberg memorably remarked of his style: 'II y a chez l'artiste une sensualité de la palette, du métier, de l'exécution, de la peinture, une sensualité et une impétuosité, un allant et une allégresse qui le distingue parmi tous les peintres' .5
1. For which see, for example, J-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, vie et oeuvre, Fribourg 1987, pp. 143-155, colour plates 180-187.
2. Cuzin, op. cit., p. 303, cat. nos. 220 and 221. the pair remained together until the latter was sold New York, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 22-23 January 1976, lot 23
3. Ibid., p. 304, no. 227.
4. Although approved (agréé) by the Academie Royale in 1765, Fragonard never sought to be received (réçu) there and seldom exhibited at the Salon.
5. Introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Fragonard, New York, Metropolitan Museum and Paris, Grand Palais, 1987-88, p. 22.
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