The present painting is almost certainly that recorded in the 1770 estate sale of Boucher's son-in-law, Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, where is found the first mention of 'the Head of an Old Man, full face' (Paris, 15 February 1770, lot 37, measuring 14.6 pouces x 12 pouces, or 39.1 x 32.4 cm.). Nine years later the painting reappears in the De Ghendt sale, where it is described as 'a Head of an Old Man with white hair, vigorously painted, and executed in the style of Rembrandt' (Paris, 15 November 1779, lot 34). Although they do not form a true series, Fragonard executed a number of such heads from the mid-1760s through the early 1770s, of which at least seven have survived, including the present lot and canvases in the Musée de Picardie, Amiens (Rosenberg 1989, no. 187), the Kunsthalle, Hamburg (ibid, no. 186), the Musée Jacquemart-Andre, Paris (no. 184), the Musée Cheret, Nice (no. 185), Ball State University Art Gallery, Muncie (no. 181), and several private collections (see Christie's, New York, Collection of André Meyer, 26 October 2001, lot 129).
These heads are clearly marked by the influence of Rembrandt -- one of Fragonard's favorite artists -- in their use of dramatic chiaroscuro, warm brown color schemes and golden shadows. But one sees equally the impact of two other artists favored by Fragonard: of Rubens, in the thick impasto and bravura brushwork that are the hallmark of these paintings; and of Fragonard's greatest contemporary, Giambattista Tiepolo, in the choice of subject matter. Tiepolo had himself launched a series of 'philosopher' heads -- bust-length depictions of bearded old men in exotic attire -- only a decade before Fragonard began his.
As Rosenberg (1988) and other writers have noted, Fragonard's interest here was in making the most dazzling possible display of his unexcelled mastery of the art of oil painting, less in probing the human soul or psyche as Rembrandt had done more than a century earlier. Fragonard's heads raise technique to the level of genius: painting with an unrivalled freedom of handling and a dynamic, improvisational, fa presto brushwork. These pictures are made with a confidence and daring unsurpassed even by Frans Hals and not to be seen again in European art until the advent of Edouard Manet and the Impressionist painters.
Despite its appearance of spontaneity, the present painting seems to be based on a remarkably naturalistic red-chalk drawing of an old man by Fragonard in the Bibliothèque Municipale, Rouen (see Rosenberg 1988, p. 206, no. 100). The only small differences are in format (the drawing is round), the somewhat longer hair on the elderly model in the drawing, and his downcast eyes (which look up and outward from beneath a furrowed brow in the painting). Certainly, the painting would have been made contemporaneously with the drawing, perhaps in 1767 (according to Rosenberg) or 1768 (according to Cuzin). In the Salon of 1767, Fragonard first exhibited a painting catalogued as 'Head of an old Man. A round painting' (perhaps identifiable with the small canvas in Muncie).
In the present painting, Fragonard takes his rigorously naturalist chalk study -- which was certainly made from direct study of a live model -- and reinterprets it through the lens of Rembrandt's painting, with its richly impasted brushwork, soft-focused, gilded lighting effects and densely layered glazes. Despite its emphasis on flamboyant technique, Fragonard's painting manages to convey with quiet dignity something of the isolation and emotional withdrawal that can affect the very elderly. Interestingly, Fragonard has signed his painting 'Frago' a form of signature he uses infrequently, but which is found also on his pronouncedly 'Rembrandtesque' portrait of a girl in fancy dress in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (op. cit. no. 103), another work of the latter 1760s.
Despite having been repeatedly published as executed in oil on paper, the present lot is in fact painted in oil on canvas, a more traditional medium for Fragonard.