Described in the entry to the 1987-88 Washington catalogue as 'sans contest le plus célèbre gouache de Fragonard' (loc. cit.), this famous and frequently exhibited work is one of only a very few drawings in bodycolour by the artist to have come down to us. Yet despite his unfamiliarity with the medium he shows that he has already made it his own: the combination of bodycolour with pastel and watercolour is typical of his enquiring, restless style. This vibrant character distinguishes it out The Gardens of the Villa d'Este, a drawing of similar type but on vellum, now in the E.V. Thaw Collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, which partly as a result of the smoothness of the support and partly because it records a known location gives a different sense of depth and space (C. Dufour Denison, Le Dessin Français, Chefs-d'Oeuvre de la Pierpont Morgan Library, exhib. cat., Paris, Musée du Louvre, and New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, 1993-94, no. 73). Fragonard uses bodycolour at other points in his career, often for highlights in watercolours, but seldom as completely as in these two examples. The technique of aquarelle gouache, that is watercolours highlighted with bodycolour, is found for example in La bonne mère in Saint Petersburg, and in three landscapes heavily influenced by Dutch art now in Lyon and two Parisian collections (Washington, 1987-88, nos. 160, 88, 89 and 93 respectively).
Like the Thaw drawing, which relates to a painting in the Wallace Collection, London, this present drawing revisits the composition with minor differences of detail and on a smaller scale, of Fragonard's picture of the late 1760s now in the collection of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, one of the artist's most enchanting compositions (J.-P. Cuzin, op. cit., no. 193). It seems most likely that in both instances the drawings in bodycolour were commissioned by connoisseurs inspired by the hugely successful painted compositions, and would therefore slightly postdate them.
L'île d'Amour is distinguished by its diversity of technique. A dry brush is used to create the lush foliage, with the watercolour so transparent in some areas that the texture of the laid paper adds to the density of the trees. This alternates with thicker dabs of bodycolour seen in the flowerbeds, gondolas and figures, often drawn across powdery areas of pastel in a technique reminiscent of Liotard. A few quick, confident strokes, nearly pointillist in character, are used to indicate the sculptures in the far left background, and lighter strokes are used to create the transparency of the frothy pool of water in the foreground. The overall surface effect is one of rich, enamel-like brilliance. When seen under infra-red light, the drawing exhibits traces of Fragonard's characteristic black chalk underdrawing, though the opacity of the bodycolour inhibits a full assessment of the extent of the black chalk. Given his highly confident technique, the artist would surely have been capable of producing the composition in a different medium without hesitation.
Two drawings are associated with the project: a full compositional drawing formerly in the Forsyth Wickes Collection (Paris and New York, Fragonard, exhib. cat., 1987-88, p. 357, fig. 1) and a study for the gondola in the lower right, formerly in the Schiff Collection, New York (A. Ananoff, op. cit., nos. 247-248, the two entries mixing the provenance of a single drawing). Pierre Rosenberg, in his 1987-88 catalogue, proposes that the compositional study was made after the painting, like the bodycolour and perhaps as part of the preparation for that project, while the drawing of the gondola may have been an earlier preparatory study.
The picture was first given the title L'île d'Amour in a 1795 auction catalogue, and it was not until the middle of the 19th Century that the name La Fête à Rambouillet appeared. This identification associates the scene with the Duc de Penthièvre's pleasure gardens at the Chateau de Rambouillet where the Royal family were often visitors. It seems more likely, given the artist's temperament, inventiveness and technical dexterity that the scene was entirely a product of Fragonard's imagination. The composition is heir to the tradition of painting fêtes galantes established by Watteau in the first quarter of the 18th Century and can perhaps be seen in part as Fragonard's response to Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera now in the Louvre.
The composition was well known in Fragonard's lifetime. The picture changed hands twice at auction before the artist's death in 1806, and twice after that before 1810, and was described glowingly in each catalogue. Its popularity no doubt probably accounts for two apparent replicas in French auction catalogues in 1777 and 1779, by Pérignon and Lantara respectively, first published by Pierre Rosenberg in 2000 (P. Rosenberg, op. cit., 2000, p. 189).
We are very grateful to Eunice Williams for her help in cataloguing this drawing.