Fragonard prepared for this large and ambitious composition by folding the sheet down the centre, enabling him to organise and balance the various elements in the composition. He then seems to have reinforced the vertical fold with a light chalk line, and throughout the composition, the light black chalk underdrawing is evident. It has been suggested that he may even have made these rapid underdrawings while still in Italy, to be used later as the basis for finished drawings. More commonly, though, Fragonard's subsequent repetitions and versions of compositions dating from his Italian journey are based on red chalk drawings made on the spot, or on counterproofs taken from those drawings worked up in pen and ink and wash, like the notable view of The Avenue of Cypresses at the Villa d'Este, in the Woodner Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, which derives from the great red chalk drawing in Besançon.1
The handling of pen and wash in the Woodner drawing is very similar to what we see here, with distinctive, systematic pen hatching in certain areas of foliage contrasting with a combination of fine dots and broad dark washes elsewhere. Another good comparison, particularly in the rather 'pointillist' style, is the reversed version of the same Villa d'Este view, now in the Albertina.2 Both of these views of the Villa d'Este, though based on an original drawing of 1760, are generally considered to date from circa 1765, a dating that would also seem appropriate for the present drawing.
Traditionally, this splendid landscape was itself also described as depicting the park of the Villa d'Este, but although the general disposition of the scene is broadly reminiscent of that location, the drawing does not in fact represent any known view. Like so many of Fragonard's landscapes, it is a recreation, from the artist's imagination, of the spirit of the Italian landscape, rather than an image of a particular, specific place. In its grandeur and monumentality it does, though, stand among the finest of Fragonard's landscape drawings, and hardly any comparable works of this type today remain in private hands.
We are very grateful to Eunice Williams and other scholars for their valuable help in the cataloguing of this drawing.
1. M. Morgan Grasselli, Renaissance to Revolution, French Drawings from the National Gallery of Art, 1500-1800, exhib. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art, 2009-10, no. 86
2. Inv. 12.735; Rosenberg, op. cit., no. 31
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