This fascinating little panel was forgotten until Pierre Rosenberg added it to his 1989 catalogue raisonné of Fragonard's paintings. When Jean-Pierre Cuzin included it in his 2006 exhibition of Fragonard's works held in Barcelona, he - like Rosenberg before him - was unable to identify its subject, and it was described generically as an 'Intérieur avec deux hommes et une jeune femme'. However, in 2007 Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey was the first to recognise that it could be associated with a painting that had been in the celebrated collection of Hippolyte Walferdin, and appeared in the sale of his collection on 12-16 April 1880, lot 20, where it was listed in the catalogue as 'L'Abdication de Marie Stuart. Murray lui montre l'acte qu'elle hésite à signer. Ce tableau rappellé les qualités de clair-obscur des maîtres hollandaises. B[ois]. 31 x 23'.
Fragonard rarely depicted historical subjects, but in the later 1770s and 1780s he occasionally placed his genre scenes in historical settings or dressed his figures in period costumes, perhaps an extension of his interest in the 17th-century Dutch paintings whose style he often imitated in this period. For example, the clothing and room interior of A Lady and her Maid Chastising a Spaniel (Private Collection, Beverly Hills; sold, Christie's London, 6 July 2010, lot 47) purposefully evokes the world of Dutch Golden Age petit maîtres such as Metsu and Ter Borch. As the Walferdin catalogue noted, in the present painting, Fragonard recreates the dramatic lighting effects associated with Dutch painters of the previous century and, as Rosenberg and Cuzin have observed, pays particular homage to the brushy handling and gilded luminosity of one of his favourite artists, Rembrandt.
There was a long history of interest among the French in the melodramatic life and sorry fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was seen as a tragic victim of palace intrigues beyond her control. The future Catholic martyr was sent off at the age of five to be raised in France and spent the next thirteen years there, becoming Queen Consort with the ascension of her husband, Francis II, to the French throne in 1559. She would return to Scotland a widow less than two years later. In 1567, following a third (scandalous) marriage, the Scottish nobility turned against Mary, raised an army and imprisoned her in Loch Leven Castle near Edinburgh, forcing her to abdicate on 24 July 1567 in favour of her one-year-old son James. Fragonard's painting appears to show the surprised and reluctant Queen in her cell being presented with the letter of abdication that she will be forced to sign. According to the Walferdin sale catalogue, standing beside her is 'Murray', who 'shows her the act that she hesitates to sign', an apparent allusion to James Stewart, the 1st Earl of Moray (pronounced Murray), who was King James V's illegitimate son and, hence, Mary's half-brother. Moray served as Regent for Mary's young son; turning against her, he ensured that she would never regain the Scottish throne.
Fragonard's painting is small but its influence was considerable. It must surely be regarded as one of the earliest works in the 'Troubadour Style', a branch of history painting that flourished in the late 18th and early 19th century, primarily in France. The sentimental historical subject matter and precise evocation of Renaissance costumes and settings in The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots helped establish the taste for scenes drawn from the art and history of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that is the genre's defining characteristic.