An 18th-century inscription on the upper left of the canvas identifies the author of this bravura painting and indicates when it was executed: Fragonard après son retour d'Italie ('Fragonard after his return from Italy') and a second inscription on the lower right -- Le Maître du Monde ('The Master of the World') -- declares its subject matter. The rapid, almost liquid brushwork of the painting is, indeed, entirely in keeping with the artist's style after he returned to Paris at the end of September 1761, following four years of study at the French Academy in Rome and a six-month-long return journey to France through Florence, Bologna, Venice, Parma and Genoa.
The subject of Fragonard's painting is a winged Cupid in triumph, the so-designated 'Master of the World'. The handsome, adolescent god of Love is identifiable by his traditional attribute, the bow and arrow. The subject itself appears often in French art of the 18th century: Pierre Rosenberg cites Nicolas de Largillierre's delightful portrait from 1726 of the young Genèvieve Houzé de la Boulaye as Cupid (op. cit., 1988, under no.71, p. 158, fig. 1; Private collection, Grasse), and Alastair Laing (see Rosenberg, 1989, under no. 89, p. 80) observes that Boucher -- Fragonard's teacher in the mid-1750s -- made a drawing of Cupid in 1758 (known from an engraving of it by J-C François; see P. Jean-Richard, L'Oeuvre gravé de Francois Boucher dans la Collection Edmond de Rothschild au Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1978, no. 1021, p. 256) that seems to have served as the principal prototype for the present lot.
Rosenberg notes that the present work is almost certainly an oil sketch made in anticipation of a larger painting that may never have been undertaken, and he draws our attention to the unpainted preparation of the canvas still visible around its edges. In its briskness of execution and the graceful floating quality of Cupid's movement, the present sketch anticipates Fragonard's pair of paintings depicting Rinaldo in the Enchanted Forest and Rinaldo in the Gardens of Armida of approximately 1764 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), as Rosenberg further observed.
In fact, Le Maître du Monde seems to have been indirectly associated with the preparations for one of those celebrated paintings, which illustrate episodes from Lully and Quinault's opera Rénaud et Armide. In Rinaldo in the Enchanted Forest, the hero of the First Crusade who led the campaign to liberate Jerusalem fights the harpies who protect the enchanted gardens of the sorceress Armida, Queen of Damascus. As Fragonard envisions them, the harpies are fearsome creatures whose writhing, twisting bodies fly around Rinaldo's head like bats to ward off the intruder. However, in a remarkably lively wash drawing for an earlier stage of the composition -- acquired in 2009 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see Rosenberg, 1988, no. 71 A) -- one of the harpies is graceful and winged, in a pose almost identical to that of Cupid in Le Maître du Monde. Fragonard would remove the figure completely before he went on to paint the final version of Rinaldo in the Enchanted Forest -- Cupid was too placid a source on which to model a harpy -- but he was certainly looking at Le Maître du Monde when he first devised the composition of the Metropolitan Museum drawing.
No doubt inspired by the Baroque art that he saw in Italy, Le Maître du Monde has nevertheless long been recognized as a quintessentially personal work. Since it first appeared in the celebrated collection of Hippolyte Walfardin in Paris in the mid-19th century, it has been seen to emblematize Fragonard's vision of life and art as well as almost any canvas could: as Fragonard shows us once again, it is Love that Rules the World.