The genesis of this spirited, life-sized, full-length portrait of the celebrated dancer and courtesan Marie-Madeleine Guimard (1743-1816) involved two of the greatest painters in the history of French art, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jacques-Louis David, although the precise nature and extent of their participation in its creation has long been the subject of confusion. The sitter, Mlle Guimard, made her debut at the Comédie Française, but soon thereafter joined the Paris Opéra, where she remained a star for several decades, acquiring well-placed lovers and considerable wealth along the way. Among her first notable roles was that of Terpsichore, Muse of Dance, in Les Fêtes greques et romaines (1762). In 1770, the 27-year-old Guimard commissioned the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to build for her a hôtel in the Chaussée d'Antin, in the newly fashionable section of Paris north of the Seine near the present-day Gare Saint-Lazare; the house was to be a Temple of Terpsichore with its own theatre attached, built in the latest and most avant-garde neoclassical style. Fragonard was commissioned to paint a series of four large mythological panels for the Salon de Compagnie.
The residence was completed only in 1773, with Guimard forced to wait as Fragonard, Ledoux and his équipe of masons, carpenters and wood carvers devoted themselves to fulfilling the urgent demands of a more powerful client, the comtesse du Barry -- official mistress of Louis XV -- whose pavilion in Louveciennes was commissioned second, but the construction and decoration of which would take precedence. By the time Guimard's residence was inaugurated, she and Fragonard had had a spectacular falling out, with the dancer having dismissed him from the project, and the artist having only sketched in the designs for the four wall panels. The Correspondance Littéraire carried news of the scandal in March 1773, reporting that "the hôtel of Mlle Guimard is almost finished; if it was paid for by Amor, it was designed by Volupté, and this divinity never had a temple in Greece more worthy of her cult. The salon is full of paintings; Mlle Guimard is represented as Terpsichore, with all the attributes that could characterize her in the most appealing way. These paintings were not yet finished when, for some reason, she had a quarrel with her painter, M. Fragonard; the quarrel was so considerable that he was dismissed, and another painter had to be called upon." The 'other painter' was the little-known, 25-year-old Louis David, a student at the École des Élèves Protégés; his first important commission would therefore consist of finishing the four mythological panels for La Guimard's salon and composing a ceiling for the room.
Eight months later, in November 1773, J-B-M Pierre, First Painter to the King, weighed in on the dispute between artist and patron, defending David in a letter to Ledoux. Pierre noted that David was blameless in the matter, and that Guimard had dismissed Fragonard when the artist, having agreed "to do the work for 6,000 livres, and having laid in the compositions demanded 20,000 livres and four years for completion, and that, frightened by this last sum, Mlle Guimard renounced her project, relieved to have to pay only the 100 louis [2400 livres] that she had already dispersed to M. Fragonard, who, for his part, either out of negligence or design, left the salon unfinished." Fragonard then departed for Italy in the company of Bergeret de Grandcourt, and Guimard brought in David to complete the project.
No trace survives of the decorations made for Guimard. Her house was aquired in 1786, following her bankrupcy, by the banker J-F Perregaux and Louis Hautecoeur (1954) mentions that in that year David slightly repainted his decorative panels. Removed from their setting, the four large, almost square panels were sold as a group in Paris, 21-22 December 1846, where they were mistakenly attributed to Fragonard alone; they subsequently disappeared. David's ceiling is also unknown today, although it is the only part of the decorations for Guimard recorded by David in the list he made of his works. However, David's earliest biographer, Miette de Villars, mentioned in his account of the artist's career (1850), that David had also "made a portrait of the lady [Guimard] representing her as a Shepherdess in the costume of the time," an apparent reference to the present canvas.
A more detailed description of the present work appears in the unimpeachable memoir of David by his pupil, Étienne Delécluze, which was published in 1855 but serialized in articles beginning soon after David's death in the 1820s. Noting that David was employed to complete the decorations for Guimard that Fragonard had originally "sketched in," Delécluze went on to observe that it was "during the time of this work, that he [David] also made a portrait of Mlle Guimard, whose generosity to the young artist was as noble as it was delicate." He recounts that 'in 1799' David showed him the portrait, 'executed completely in the taste of Boucher,' remembering that David said that "the sight of this work was always doubly agreeable to him because it reminded him of a truly generous Protector, and gave him an irrefutable proof of the reform that he had introduced into art." The passage is notable for several reasons. It suggests that the portrait was in David's possession by 1799 (probably acquired after Guimard went bankrupt in 1786), and that it was executed in an antiquated, rococo style that the artist would soon overthrow for a neoclassical idiom that would revolutionize painting; beyond that, it describes the picture as 'completely in the taste of Boucher' while in no way indicating that it owed any debt to Fragonard.
When the present painting first appeared at auction in Paris on 30 September 1826 (lot 3) -- just one year after David's death in exile in Brussels -- it was identified as the portrait of Guimard by David, the catalogue noting that this 'curious' painting was painted in "une manière absolvment opposéo à celle que le grand maître à prise lorsqu'il a eu l'idée de régénerer l'ecole...." However, by the late 19th century, when it was in the legendary collection of Camille Groult, it was considered one of the masterpieces of Fragonard, lovingly evoked by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, after which time it disappeared from view. After it reappeared at auction in London in 1987, from the Patino collection, several scholars tentatively suggested that it might have been executed by both David and Fragonard, like the lost salon decorations of Mlle Guimard, perhaps begun by Fragonard and finished by the younger artist. However, little about the picture's appearance or the contemporary references to it recommends this theory. Miette de Villars and Delécluze -- both of whom knew David -- discuss it as a work by David with no suggestion that Fragonard had any part in its creation. It was attributed to David alone when it was sold in 1826. No early source refers to Fragonard as designing anything for Guimard beyond the four lost mythologies. The handling of paint is entirely consistent throughout the portrait, with nothing to suggest that more than one hand was involved in its execution.
Moreover, the portrait is designed and painted with an appealing naïveté, pastel palette, and rococo energy consistent with the earliest paintings of David, such as the portraits of his uncle, François Buron (private collection) and aunt, Marie-Josèphe Buron (Art Institute of Chicago), which are signed and dated 1769; his Grand Prix submission of 1771, The Combat of Mars and Minerva (Louvre, Paris); and his competition piece of 1774, Antiochus and Stratonice (École des Beaux-Arts, Paris). Fragonard, on the other hand, was at the height of his powers in 1773-1774, having just completed his series for the comtesse du Barry's pleasure pavilion at Louveciennes, the famous Progress of Love (1772; The Frick Collection, New York), the greatest decorative ensemble produced in France in the 18th century. His style at this point in his career has little to do with the Boucher-inflected manner of the Portrait of Mlle Guimard as Terpsichore. Although the Goncourt mistakenly attributed the painting to Fragonard, their appreciation of it is apropos: "wearing the costume of a shepherdess from the Opéra, [her] powdered hair is crowned by a light garden hat, in a charming turned-up style with ribbons fluttering out behind it; and a pug is barking up her skirt.... Shown in the act of trying out a dance step, the ballerina is shod with white satin shoes adorned with pink rosettes -- charming shoes worn by a triumphant foot which provides the target for a cupid kneeling in a rose-bush and preparing to discharge an arrow from his bow."
The discovery, just last year, of a previously unknown drawing by Fragonard recording many of his figures de fantaisie and bearing hand-written identifications of their subjects has upended the long-held belief that one of his beloved 'Fantasy Portraits' in the Louvre portrayed La Guimard (it depicts instead the daughter of the marquis de Grave, Marie-Anne-Éléonore de Grave; see C. Blumenfeld, Une facétie de Fragonard: Les révélations d'un dessin retrouvé, Paris, 2013, pp. 22-23). Likewise, recent scholarship has further diminished the painted ties of Fragonard to Guimard, firmly asserting the authorship of the present portrait to David rather than Fragonard, notably in a study of David by Simon Lee (1999), and especially in Colin B. Bailey's definitive examination of Fragonard's Progress of Love cycle (2011), in which the author observes that the present painting, having recently appeared with an attribution to Fragonard and David jointly, "would appear to have been painted entirely by the twenty-five year old David" (p. 166, note 60).
A reasoned examination of The Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore reveals that it is unlikely to be merely a curious hybrid by two hands belonging to painters of different eras and sensibilities. More profitable than attempting to incorporate it awkwardly into the mature career of Fragonard, the last great painter of the ancién regime, would be to see the portrait as David and his contemporaries saw it: the sparkling debut of a transformative genius who was soon to reimagine the art of painting in Europe for a new century.