Although the present painting is authentically signed by Fragonard, and has an illustrious provenance traceable to the artist's own lifetime, it has been entirely absent from the extensive literature on Fragonard apart from a fleeting reference in Pierre de Nolhac's 1906 monograph. Its appearance in a recent exhibition devoted to its first recorded owner, the legendary English collector and connoisseur, William Beckford, can be credited with bringing this important addition to Fragonard's oeuvre the attention its fine quality merits.
Visionary art collector, designer, builder and author of the notorious Gothic novel Vathek (1786), William Beckford (1760-1844) became perhaps the leading tastemaker of Georgian and Regency England. Son of the Lord Mayor of London, related (through his mother) to the celebrated Hamilton family of Scotland and heir to the vast riches of his father's Jamaican sugar plantations, Beckford was known as 'England's wealthiest son'. Like many young men of his class, he followed the 'Grand Tour' in his mid-20s, travelling widely throughout Europe and studying the painting, music and architecture of the countries he visited. By the time of his Paris sojourn in 1783-1784, Beckford was actively collecting and commissioning works of art, and it was on that trip that he was introduced to Hubert Robert in the painter's studio at the Louvre. Beckford purchased paintings from Robert, and he noted that he toured other studios as well, 'hunting out the Artists in harbours'; he would likely have met Fragonard around the same time through Robert or the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux . Between 1788 and 1789, Beckford lived in Paris in one of the most luxurious townhouses of the era, the Hôtel d'Orsay on the rue de Varenne, which had recently been decorated in the fashionable neoclassical style, and it is certain that the interiors of the comte d'Orsay's townhouse later served as a source of inspiration for the lavish neoclassical redecoration of Beckford's family seat in Wiltshire, Fonthill Splendens, in the next decade.
It is likely that Beckford bought Fragonard's painting (perhaps from the artist himself) when he was living in the Hôtel d'Orsay. The period of Beckford's residence accords with the probable date of the picture, which, based on its style, would appear to have been executed in the mid-to-late 1780s. The painting returned home with Beckford to Fonthill Splendens where it was recorded by the antiquarian John Britton in 1801 as hanging in the upstairs gallery. In Beckford's next home, the fabled Gothic fantasy known as Fonthill Abbey, it hung in the dining room (or 'cabinet' room), and at the time of Beckford's death in 1844, it was recorded as being in the back drawing room at Lansdown Crescent in Bath, his final residence. After his death he left it to his youngest daughter, Susan Euphemia, the Duchess of Hamilton. Sold in 1882 in the dispersal of Hamilton Palace, it later found its way back to Fonthill Abbey when the Shaw-Stewart family (who purchased it from Agnew's) came into possession of the estate by marriage.
Fragonard's painting shows two women - a lady and her maid - disciplining a dog that rolls on its back in cheerful disregard of their instruction. It is the sort of subject he often depicted - usually with erotic overtones, as in Young Girl with Puppies (Jeff Koons, New York; Cuzin, 199), Two Women on a Bed Playing with Dogs (Lynda & Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills; Cuzin, 202) and La Gimblette (Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Cuzin, 282). Here, Fragonard dresses up the subject in 17th-century Dutch costume, in keeping with a fashionable genre of painting of which he and his sister-in-law, Marguerite Gérard, were the leading exponents in the 1780s. Employing a so-called 'Metsu manner', Fragonard and Gérard created a series of small domestic interiors - women reading love letters, receiving visitors, playing games, etc. - in conscious emulation of the precise handling, earth-toned palette and meticulous high finish of the 'little Dutch masters' of the 17th century. Beckford was an active buyer of such works.
The distinctive costume worn by the lady in Beckford's painting - a sumptuous red velvet jacket trimmed in white fur, over a pearl-coloured satin dress - appears in several other pictures of this genre and era, including The Reader (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Cuzin, 414) and Sleep, My Child (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe; Cuzin, 411), but its source is found a century earlier in pictures by Ter Borch, such as The Music Lesson (c. 1668, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), which includes a lute-player in the identical costume, as well as a reclining spaniel that is the forebear of Fragonard's playful pet. Both the Cambridge and Karlsruhe paintings are now universally regarded as collaborative efforts made by both Fragonard and Gérard: although the Karlsruhe painting is signed by Gérard alone, it was sold in 1795 as by both artists. The present work, which is signed by Fragonard alone, was also probably created in collaboration with Gérard, as it is consistent in subject matter, format and style with the other collaborative paintings by the two artists, all of which were painted in a period spanning not more than a decade (c. 1780-1790). Marguerite Gérard lived in Fragonard's household from the time of her arrival in Paris in 1775 (at age fourteen) until his death in 1806; she would be his only serious, long-term student. Contemporary sales catalogues and engravings indicate that Gérard and her famous brother-in-law were regularly creating paintings together throughout the 1780s and their collaborations were, in Jean-Pierre Cuzin's words, 'frequent, extensive and assumed many different forms'.
The seamless ease with which Fragonard and Gérard collaborated complicates one's ability to distinguish the precise individual contribution of each to Le Chien Epagneul; however, the skillful, convincing evocation of shimmering fabrics, décor and still life elements, painted in emulation of the 17th-century Dutch masters, is characteristic of Gérard's work throughout her career, while the heads and hands of the women, as well as the wittily, naturalistically observed dog, would seem to be the distinctive contribution of Fragonard.
We gratefully acknowledge the use of the late David Carritt's extensive, unpublished notes on the Beckford Fragonard in the preparation of the present entry. Access to his notes was provided to us through the kindness of Eunice Williams.