Lot 32
  • 32

JEAN-HONORÉ FRAGONARD | The Fountain of Love

600,000 - 800,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard
  • The Fountain of Love
  • oil on canvas
  • 18 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches


Monsieur Bérend, Paris; His sale, Paris, Chevalier, 2 December 1889, lot 4, for 4050 francs;

There acquired by Marcel Bernstein (1840–1896), Paris;

Thence by descent to Henry Bernstein (1876–1953), Paris;

Bartholoni Collection (according to the 1959 sale catalogue below);

With Wildenstein, New York;

Irwin B. Laughlin (1871–1941), Washington, D.C.;

Thence by descent to his daughter, Mrs Hubert Chanler (1914–1999), New York;

By whom sold, London, Sotheby’s, 10 June 1959, lot 22, for £3500;

With Wildenstein, New York;

From whom acquired by the late collector in 1988.


Paris, Champs de Mars, Exposition des arts au début du siècle, 1891, no. 367; Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, and Kyoto, Municipal Museum, Fragonard, 18 March – 11 May 1980 and 24 May – 29 June 1980, no. 81;

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fragonard, February–May 1988, no. 283A;

New York, Colnaghi, 1789 French Art During the Revolution, October–November 1989, no. 23;

Williamstown, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, Consuming Passion: Fragonard’s Allegories of Love, 28 October 2007 – 21 January 2008 and 12 February – 4 May 2008.


G. Bourcard, Catalogue de dessins, gouaches, estampes, tableaux du XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1893, p. 190 (as a sketch); P. de Nolhac, J.-H. Fragonard, Paris 1906, p. 116 (as a sketch);

G. Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard, London 1960, pp. 28, 308, no. 487,
reproduced fig. 200 (as a sketch);

Wallace Collection Catalogues: Pictures and Drawings, London 1968, p. 117;

D. Wildenstein and G. Mandel, L’opera completa di Fragonard, Milan 1972, p. 109, no. 518, reproduced fig. 518;

J. Ingamells, The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Pictures, III: French before 1815, London 1985, p. 155 (as a sketch for the Wallace Collection painting);

J.-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, vie et œuvre-catalogue complet des peintures, Fribourg and Paris 1987, p. 332, no. 374, and p. 332, under no. 373, reproduced p. 212, fig. 263;

D. Sutton, 'Selected Prefaces: Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The World as Illusion', Apollo, CXXV, February 1987, 300, pp. 112–113, reproduced p. 111, fig. 10;

P. Rosenberg, Tout l’œuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris 1989, p. 118, no. 409;

C. Bailey in 1789: French Art During the Revolution, exh. cat., New York 1989, pp. 190–94, no. 190, reproduced;

A. Molotiu in Fragonard’s Allegories of Love, exh. cat., Los Angeles 2007, pp. 37, 40–41, reproduced p. 40, fig. 30 (as a sketch).

Catalogue Note

Described by Pierre Rosenberg as an 'étude merveilleusement vaporeuse, peinte avec une grande légèreté' ('a marvellously airy study, painted with a great lightness of touch')1, this enchanting picture is the preliminary oil study for one of the most celebrated of all Fragonard's paintings. Executed in about 1784 as part of a series of four allegorical portrayals of love, the Fountain of Love is one of the most famous creations of his mature career. In it Fragonard skilfully blends the fountain, a traditional motif from courtly medieval culture, with newly fashionable classical motifs, all in a supremely painterly rococo vein. The famous French art critics the de Goncourt brothers, capture the spirit of the scene perfectly; in a wooded garden, surrounded by putti, two lovers, crowned with roses and driven on by their passion, ardently seek the waters of the fountain of love: '... affamés tous deux, l'œil brûlant, ils tendent la soif et le désir de leurs lèvres à la coupe enchantée...'
(... both with burning eyes and famished mouths, lean forward to quench the thirst and desire of their lips at the magic cup...)2

At least two autograph finished versions of The Fountain of Love are known: the signed and best known example is in the Wallace Collection, London, and another more recent rediscovery, formerly in the collection of Lady Holland, is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (figs 1 and 2).3 Scholars have long recognized the present version of The Fountain of Love, with its fluid and impressionistic brushstrokes, as likely to be Fragonard's earliest realization of the composition, from which the two more finished versions derive. The present oil study is smaller and differs from them in a number of details; the general tonality of pale blues and greens, for example, is very different from the autumnal colouring and more developed chiaroscuro of the Wallace and Getty versions. Cuzin, who described the present work as 'une merveilleuse esquisse' ('a marvellous sketch'), noted how its 'mother-of-pearl tones' as yet lack the distinctive dramatic lighting of the London painting. There are also minor differences, for example in the insertion of an additional putto on the extreme right of the picture and another in the trees above, and the way in which the male lover's hand seems to restrain the arm of his companion. The composition was a huge success, and was made famous by Nicolas François Regnault's popular engraving published in late 1785 (fig. 3). In 1786 Marguerite Gérard, Fragonard’s sister-in-law and an accomplished artist in her own right, included it in her self-portrait, L’élève intéressante, now in a private collection. At Fragonard's death The Fountain of Love remained one of the most famous of all his works. In his 1806 obituary, the Journal de Paris singled it out as one of only three works that linked his name with 'l'idée même des Grâces', ('the very embodiment of the graces').4

The Fountain of Love was one of a group of four subjects painted by Fragonard in the 1780s, in which he developed a new approach to the portrayal of the theme of love. The others are Le Serment d'amour or The Oath to Love (c. 1780; Rothschild Collection, Waddesdon Manor, with a version at the Musée d’art et d’Histoire de la Provence, Grasse; L'Invocation à l'amour or The Invocation to Love (1780; private collection, New York, with a version at the Musée du Louvre, Paris), and the most erotically charged of the group, the Sacrifice de la Rose or The Sacrifice of the Rose (late 1780s; the Resnick Collection, Beverly Hills; with versions in a private collection, Paris, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, Buenos Aires). Typical of this allegorical group was Fragonard's response to a shift among the wider public towards a more classical taste. He now tempered his characteristic fête galantes in the rococo tradition of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, with a more classical flavour.  As observed by Colin Bailey, the resulting design of The Fountain of Love is 'distinctive: pagan, celebratory, unremittingly carnal but thoroughly imbued with references from the Classical Past'.5 As examples of the latter he compares the profiles of the two lovers with classical cameo portraits and in particular with the heads in Peter Paul Rubens’ Tiberius and Agrippa (National Gallery of Art, Washington), a painting Fragonard may have seen when he visited the Prince of Liechtenstein’s collection in Vienna in 1774. The results here anticipate romanticism, for as John Ingamells noted: '...the profile heads, sculptural figures and melting chiaroscuro, beside the classicising imagery' all look forward to the work of the great romantic painter Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758–1823).6 Ironically, it was to be just this emergence of neo-classicism that would effectively signal the end of Fragonard's success as a painter. Perhaps Fragonard himself had already sensed this. As Denys Sutton wrote, there is in this group of works '...a curious fin de siècle quality and a sense of regret, as if the certainty of love and pleasure are being questioned... They also look ahead to the dark, mysterious world of the symbolists'.7

1 Rosenberg 1989, p. 118.
2 E. and J. De Goncourt, 'Fragonard', in L'art du XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1883, p. 329. De Goncourt was referring to the version in the Wallace Collection.
3 Molotiu in Los Angeles 2007, pp. 37–41, reproduced figs 1 and 29 and front cover. A third version, also in oils on canvas (53 x 46 cm.) formerly in the Walferdin and Paillard collections is listed by Cuzin (Cuzin 1987, no. 375) but with reservations as to the attribution. Interestingly Portalis (Honoré Fragonard. Sa vie et son œuvre, Paris 1889, p. 277), did not link this with a version sold from the Saint collection in 1846, which he described as 'Esquisse d'une charmante couleur', which might otherwise seem to refer to the present work. Another larger version (62 x 51 cm.) was sold London, Christie's, 11 April 1913, lot 50 and later in the Willys collection in Toledo, Ohio, and a grisaille copy was in the More sale, Brussels, 12 April 1929, lot 100.
4 Journal de Paris, no. 237, December 1806, p. 1742. The Fountain of Love was commemorated alongside another work from the series, The Sacrifice of the Rose, as well as Coresus and Callirhoe (1765, Louvre, Paris), the latter of which was exhibited to prolific acclaim at the Salon of 1765 and quickly acquired by the King.
5 Bailey in New York 1989, p. 193.
6 Ingamells 1985, p. 154.
7 Sutton 1987, pp. 112–13.