The present painting was first recorded in the collection of the king's printer, L.F. Prault, and was sold at auction in Paris with its pendant on 27 November 1780. The painting is clearly identified in the catalogue of Prault's sale, where it is described as of oval format, depicting 'une jeune fille tenant deux petits chiens' with the measurements 21 pouces by 19 pouces. Last autumn, at the Musée Jacquemart-Andre in Paris, it was exhibited for the first time in living memory with its former pendant, which depicts a young girl playing with a kitten. That painting, now in the Museum Langmatt Stiftung, Baden (Rosenberg 1989, no. 210), was substantially reduced in size (apparently in the early twentieth century), when it was cropped on all four sides and made rectangular in format. Although it now measures just 42 x 33 cm., the side-by-side juxtaposition of the Young Girl Playing with a Kitten and the present lot made it clear that the two canvases had once formed the pair described in Prault's collection.
Prault owned six paintings by Fragonard, all of them composed in oval formats, and apparently executed in a relatively short period around 1770, probably immediately after the artist finished his celebrated series of Figures de fantaisie. In addition to Young Girl Holding Two Puppies and its now-rectangular partner, the series also included the famous Perrette and the Jug of Milk (Rosenberg 1989, no. 207; Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris); a bust-length of a girl wearing a round bonnet and fichu (Rosenberg 1989, no. 220; private collection); a bust-length of a boy holding a bunch of cherries in his hat (Rosenberg 1989, no. 219; private collection); and a comic depiction of a child riding a mule while a little boy and girl feed the animal grass (lost). The expert at Prault's sale, J-B-P Le Brun - an art dealer and husband of Mme. Vigée Le Brun - wrote that 'for each of the paintings by M. Fragonard that we have just described, we could have added specific praise. In them, we recognize the new and delightful handling that characterizes his work'.
Throughout the 1770s, Fragonard made something of a specialty of painting beautiful, scantily clad young women fondling or playing with pet animals. The present painting, in which the young girl fixes the observer firmly with her gaze while cuddling the two puppies to her flirtatiously exposed breasts, possesses a gentle and somewhat equivocal sensuality. This places it somewhere between an apparently innocent pair of roundels - formerly in the collection of Batsheva de Rothschild, of a Girl Holding a Dove and a Girl Holding a Cat and a Dog (Cuzin, nos. 302 & 301) - and more overtly erotic paintings, such as Two Women on a Bed Playing with Two Dogs (Cuzin, no. 202; Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills), and the explicitly sexualized Young Girl Playing with a Dog in Her Bed (Cuzin, no. 282; Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). All of the above-mentioned paintings, whether their young subjects are modest, openly carnal, or - like the Young Girl Holding Two Puppies - somewhere ambiguously in between, are irresistibly characterized by the liquid and fluent brushwork, a dancing sense of movement and the opalescent coloring that Fragonard had fully mastered around 1770, and that Le Brun was to acutely praise ten years later.
Rosenberg dates the picture to before 1770 and Cuzin to around 1770.