This intimately sized, jewel-like cabinet picture is a highly refined example of the late production of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the hero of French eighteenth-century rococo painting. The masterly small panel was unknown before its rediscovery in 1988. It was first published the following year by Pierre Rosenberg, who placed it at the very end of Fragonard's career, at the same moment as the large panel known as La Rêverie (New York, The Frick Collection), which is documented to 1790.
Rosenberg also raised the question of the possible participation of Marguerite Gérard in its execution. The younger sister of Fragonard's wife Marie-Anne, Marguerite Gérard came to live at the Fragonard family quarters in the Louvre upon her mother's death in 1775. Aged only fourteen, she became the talented pupil of her successful brother-in-law. Because the late production of the master is little documented, the extent of Gérard's involvement in his mature work has been debated. Some works bear both artists' signatures while some others, such as Les premiers pas de l'enfance (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum), despite its great refinement of technique and delicacy of taste, show the hands of both artists working on different parts of the same picture. A master of recreating the shimmering textures of silk and satin, Gérard's technique was one of meticulous exactitude. In keeping with both the fashionable goût hollandais exemplified by other contemporary artists such as Louis-Léopold Boilly, and the rising neo-classical style's taste for polished surface, Gérard's sought to emulate her Dutch predecessors such as Gerard ter Borch or Gerrit Dou in creating pleasing genre scenes where the painterly stroke is virtually invisible.
Despite his reverence for the Dutch Golden Age fijnschilders, Fragonard never sought to eradicate his presence so completely. Although his late style has been called his 'Metsu manner', he remained, in the words of his most eager nineteenth-century collector François Hyppolite Walferdin, the 'dynamic painter' he had been his entire career. La Surprise is a vivid example of this ever virtuosic and spontaneous approach. In this work, the painter magisterially conveys the crisp folds of the satin skirt - its weight and sheen - not by slavishly realistic, painstakingly applied strokes, but rather through deft, confident touches of subtly varied silvery grey. He applies dabs of colours throughout to enliven the composition and suggests the young lady's profile in a swift, almost calligraphic fashion. Marianne Roland-Michel has further pointed out the unlikelihood of collaboration on a panel of such small dimensions. She also observed that the treatment of fabrics in La Surprise and indeed, the whole conception of the draped female form is characteristic of Fragonard's late paintings.
La Surprise is indeed reminiscent of a group of red chalk studies depicting young girls in various positions that Fragonard produced in his later years, such as the Jeune fille debout vue de profil (Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs) similarly looking outside the picture plane to an unseen, presumably male presence. Some of these studies are thought to depict Marguerite Gérard and later fueled a fantasising literature about a presumed romance between the aging painter and his young student. Although these accounts proved unsubstantiated, Fragonard is known to have portrayed his charming sister-in-law in at least two drawings (now in Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, and Paris, Musée du Louvre). Therefore rather than being a painting by Marguerite Gérard, the present picture could be a painting of her.
In La Surprise, the startled young lady puts down her book and beckons warily toward an unseen presence - supposedly a lover - who has suddenly arrived. A half-seen garden sculpture seems to be a version of The Menacing Cupid (1757; Paris, Musée du Louvre), which Fragonard memorably included in The Swing (1767; London, The Wallace Collection), painted more than 20 years before the present picture. In both paintings, Falconet's Cupid puts a finger to his lips to urge our silent complicity (the base of the statue carries Fragonard's partly effaced but characteristic signature). The sepulchral lighting and dry, brushy application of paint in the foliage can be found in another small panel painting from late in Fragonard's career, The Invocation to Love (circa 1785; Paris, Musée du Louvre). Professor Helen Weston has described these pictures well: 'typical of Fragonard's work at this period are the light and dark contrasts, the sense of drama and expectancy, the predominance of brown and white tones and the textural contrasts drawn between hard stone ... and the light, soft feathers, flesh, hair and drapery of the figures' (in 1789: French Art during the Revolution, exhibition catalogue, Colnaghi, New York, 1989, p. 196). And indeed Fragonard masterfully instilled a degree of eeriness in this nocturnal encounter. Far from the light-hearted, rosy-coloured tonalities of his earlier works, he subtly echoed the gravitas of the rising proto-romantic, neo-classical aesthetics, thereby making this transitional picture a poignant symbol of this new age.