Marie-Thérèse Riggieri (1754-1837) and her two sisters, Marie-Catherine (1751-1830) and Marie-Madeleine (1760-1841), were among the more celebrated demi-mondaines of their era. Appearing under the stage name 'Colombe' (French for 'Dove'), the beautiful (and notorious) Venetian-born stars of the Comédie Italienne made a sensation in late 18th-century Paris. Ever since a spectacular pair of paintings by Fragonard depicting beautiful young women playing with pet animals were rediscovered a century ago still installed in the bedroom of Marie-Catherine's former residence, the Château de Saint-Brice, it has been an article of faith that those pictures and a whole group of loosely related images of young women by Fragonard -- including the present portrait -- portray one or another of the Colombe sisters. (The pair of paintings from Saint-Brice, formerly belonging to Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, was auctioned at Christie's, London, 13 December 2000, lots 64 & 65). Despite Fragonard's known connections to the sisters, and the fact that the artist very likely painted the Saint-Brice pendants specifically for Marie-Catherine, there is little reason to believe that they or most of the other known paintings in the group were intended to portray any of the sisters, as Pierre Rosenberg first acknowledged (1987).
The present painting has a greater claim to representing one of the sisters than most, by virtue of the fact that it is clearly a portrait rather than a genre subject. The sitter's face is not a Fragonard 'type', but displays a singular identity that distinguishes the painting from the various lightly erotic images of girls playing with doves or kittens, or dressed as various goddesses, that are often associated with the Colombe sisters. Among Fragonard's relatively rare portraits, the present work displays a pleasing restraint in both the sitter's gentle, slightly tentative expression and the artist's sophisticated palette of silver, pearl and grey (enlivened by the rosy notes of the sitter's lips, cheeks and floral bouquet). Its subtle varieties in technique, from the smooth and creamy finish of the face to the loose, sketchy execution of the hand, costume and flowers, is comparable to Fragonard's Girl Playing with a Cat in the Museum Langmatt Stiftung, Baden, which is universally dated around 1770, the date likewise proposed for the present painting by Pierre Rosenberg.
The painting was traditionally identified as a portrait of Marie-Madeleine Colombe, known as Adeline, until François Daulte (1954) and Jean Cailleux (1960) observed that the actress would have been little more than ten years old when the painting was made; they re-identified the likely sitter as her 16 year-old sister, Marie-Thérèse, whose adolescent beauty is rendered more mature by her revealing décolletage and powdered hair.