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Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)

Le Billet Doux (The Love Letter)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris)
Le Billet Doux (The Love Letter)
oil on canvas, unlined
6 ½ x 4 7/8 in. (16.4 x 12.4 cm.)
Dujarry Sale, Paris, 4/5 July 1783, lot 36, one of a pair (“Deux tableaux: dans l’un on voit une jeune fille à une croisée, qui s’entretient avec un jeune homme; la crainte d’être surprise répand sur sa figure un intérêt que l’on partage volontiers. L’autre représente une jeune fille, à qui la lecture d’une letter qu’elle tient semble causer le plus vif chagrin. H. 6 p[ouces]; L. 4 p[ouces]”).
Private collection, Lyon, since the 19th century.
Private collection, Paris.
Private collection, London.

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Lot Essay

This tiny, recently rediscovered painting is a delightful new addition to Fragonard’s oeuvre. It joins a loose series of small canvases and panel paintings by Fragonard, all dating from the mid-1770s, all measuring approximately 16 x 12 cm., and most depicting genre scenes of bust-length figures at a stone ledge or open window. Among these is a pair of paintings once belonging to Fragonard’s friend, the architect P.-A. Pâris, Young Mother Holding her Child and Young Couple at a Window (P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris, 1989, nos. 320/321; Besançon); a Mother Holding her Child in her Arms (Rosenberg, op. cit., no. 317; private collection); Child Standing at a Window with his Arms Open (Rosenberg, op. cit., no. 318; private collection); ‘The Reading Lesson’ (Rosenberg op. cit., no. 319; private collection); and the famous ‘Les Petites Curieuses’ from the Louvre (Rosenberg, op. cit., no. 327).

Another painting from the group, a canvas depicting a young man reaching up imploringly to a young woman who looks down on him from a small, high window (fig. 1; Rosenberg, op. cit., no. 322; Veil-Picard Collection, Paris) was almost certainly intended as the pendant to the present canvas. The two compositions complement and balance each other perfectly, and both depict the surprising encounters of young lovers who strain to see each other through windows. Indeed, they were certainly the pair of paintings offered in the Dujarry Sale in Paris, 4-5 July 1783, lot 36, where the pendant is described as “a young girl at a window who is talking to a young man; the fear of being surprised is clear on her face and this gives the painting an interest that we share happily”; the present painting is described as “representing a young woman whose reading of a letter that she holds seems to cause her the liveliest upset. H. 6 p.; L. 4 p.”

The thick and creamy handling of the paint and the sparkling effects of light pouring through the window to illuminate the young girl’s startled face and shapely bust are characteristic of Fragonard’s works in the 1770s, as is the witty motif of the boy straining to drop his love letter through the tiny round window. The delicious effects of Fragonard’s bravura brushwork are well-preserved on this original, unlined canvas, which is still on its original stretcher and in its original frame, stamped by Etienne-Louis Infroit (1719/20-1795), master framer from 1768.

A lost drawing that appeared in a sale in Paris (Lugt 4604; 31 May 1790, lot 323) is generally associated with the famous bistre-wash drawing ‘La Lettre’ in the Art Institute of Chicago, but might well have been a study for the present painting: “Un jeune homme par une croisée remet une lettre à une femme qui est dans un appartement. Dessin d’un effet très-piquant par Fragonard.”

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