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La Gimblette (The Ring Biscuit)

La Gimblette (The Ring Biscuit)
oil on canvas
28 ½ x 35 3⁄16 in. (72.4 x 91 cm.)
Collection G. Mühlbacher (d. 1906); his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, 13-15 May 1907, lot 23, as Honoré Fragonard (sold 31,500 francs to Paulme (?) – possibly identifiable as Marius Paulme (1863-1928), art connoisseur and collector of paintings, drawings and prints – according to a handwritten note in the Documentation of Louvre Paintings).
Anonymous sale; Palais des Congrès, Versailles, (Me Martin), 23 February 1969, lot 25, as Attributed to Fragonard.
Anonymous sale; Palais Galliera, Paris (Mes Loudmer & Poulain), 4 March 1975, lot 33, as Attributed to Fragonard.
Anonymous sale; Drouot Richelieu, Paris, (Mes Rieunier, Bailly-Pommery & Fillaire), 5 February 2001, lot 2, as 'école française du XVIIIe siècle, suiveur de Jean Honoré Fragonard'.
Private collection, Europe, from where acquired by the present owner.
L. Reau, Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris, 1956, p. 159.
J.-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Life and Work. Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings, New York, 1988, p. 314, under no. 283, as 'apparently a copy'.
M. Roland Michel, Aspects de Fragonard, Peintures-Dessins-Estampes, Paris, 1987, under cat. no. 64.
P. Rosenberg, ed., Fragonard, exhibition catalogue, Paris and New York, 1987-88, under cat. 110, pp. 232, fig. 5 (entry by P. Rosenberg).
P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris, 1989, p. 99, no. 263 A, illustrated.
Sale Room Notice
Please note an amendment to the first line of provenance. The buyer in the 1907 sale according to a handwritten note in the Documentation of Louvre Paintings is possibly identifiable as Marius Paulme (1863-1928), art connoisseur and collector of paintings, drawings and prints.

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Lot Essay

“But Fragonard was, above all, charmed by the playful gestures and movements of a woman alone, in the morning, in the whiteness and warmth of her bed, when she turns over, stretches out her body and exerts her limbs in the moment of waking. He loved those relaxed moments when her skin breathes in the sun, exposes itself heedlessly to the light, when her body escapes from the sheets, recovers its suppleness, and her nightgown, creased up during the night, only half covers her. It is the innocent voluptuousness of this recreative hour, the happy, unhampered movement of an awakening, that he sought to express in the delightful picture in which a young girl, her cap fallen off her head, her eyes sparkling with her sixteen years, a broad smile upon her lips, careless of what might be revealed by the nightgown rolled up to her waist, balances in mid-air on the soles of her feet a curled poodle with a face like a bewigged councilor; full of laughter, she presses her feet to the dog’s coat and offers it a ringed biscuit with her hand; meanwhile a shaft of light from the foot of the bed streams between its curtains, strikes the bedclothes and dances with joyous leaps and bounds over the girl’s pink limbs. This work is ‘La Gimblette’, a flower of erotic art, full of freshness and Gallic wit…. It is one of the two masterpieces of Fragonard in this genre….” (R. Ironside, trans.)

The description by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt of La Gimblette in their influential multi-volume study, L’Art au Dix-Huitième Siecle (1859-75) – fragrant, if slightly hyperventilating as it is – was composed after the brothers saw two quite different versions of the subject by Fragonard in the legendary collection of the connoisseur Hippolyte Walferdin (1795-1880), who by the middle of the 19th century had amassed the greatest selection of the artist’s works ever assembled. In describing the subject, the Goncourts appear to have conflated the present composition with that of the Young Girl in Her Bed, Making Her Dog Dance, a canvas of upright format by Fragonard today in Munich (c.1770-75; Alte Pinakothek, Munich), a picture long – and erroneously – conflated with La Gimblette. In the Munich picture, then in Walferdin’s collection, the bedcap of the reclining girl has, indeed, tumbled off her head, but she holds a small dog against her upraised knees – not ‘on the soles of her feet’ – cuddling it, but not offering it a ‘gimblette’. (A ‘gimblette’ is a small, ring-shaped biscuit, native to Fragonard’s Provençal birthplace.) Their description otherwise accords perfectly with the present composition, a version of which was also in Walferdin’s possession.

However, the Goncourts were not alone in their mistake, as confusion has long surrounded La Gimblette, which is known today in three surviving versions, as well as in a lost variant that belonged to the Baron de Bésenval and was engraved by Charles Bertony in 1783. The existence of multiple versions, extant and lost, as well as copies based on Bertony’s print which have often appeared at auction, make it almost impossible to sort out the provenance of the paintings prior to the 20th century, when photographic records became commonplace. Of the three surviving versions, the present painting and a version long in the collection of the Paris art dealer Paul Cailleux and his descendants (sold in the early 1990s and today in a private collection) have rightful claim to being autograph works; a third version, formerly in the collection of Eugene Kraemer (and sold at auction in Paris, 4 June 1970), appears from photographs to be of weaker quality (although the present author has never seen it in person). These three paintings differ slightly in dimensions – the present work, known as the ‘Muhlbacher’ version, is the largest, measuring 72.4 x 91 cm; the ex-Cailleux painting is 61 x 77.5 cm; and the ‘Kraemer’ version is 63 x 80 cm. – but are nearly identical in their broad, swift handling and bright, sparkling palette of pink, rose, coral, yellow and milky whites; the lone significant difference among them is that the lapdog in the ex-Cailleux painting is black rather than white as in the present painting and the ‘Kraemer’ version.

Although Fragonard has long been celebrated, or condemned, as ‘libertine’ – a recent exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris was entitled Fragonard Amoureux, Galant et Libertin (2015-16) – the number of his erotic canvases is quite small. The discreetly suggestive The Swing (Wallace Collection, London), the various compositions known as Useless Resistance (Stockholm; San Francisco); La Chemise enlevée and the overtly erotic Le Feu aux Poudres (both, Louvre, Paris); The Kiss (private collection, Paris) and The Happy Lovers (private collection, Geneva) – still startling in its unapologetic carnality; the friskily licentious Two Girls on a Bed, Playing with Their Dog (The Resnick Collection, Beverly Hills); the threatened rape that constitutes the disturbing subject Le Verrou (‘The Bolt’) in the Louvre; and the allegorical sacrifice to passion that is The Sacrifice of the Rose (The Resnick Collection, Beverly Hills), account for all of his production in the genre known today.

As the several versions, variations, engravings and many copies indicate, La Gimblette was the most popular and resonant, as well as the most joyous and carefree, of Fragonard’s ‘erotica’ – a happy, sunny indulgence in “innocent voluptuousness”, as the Goncourts observed. All darkness, anxiety and true passion is stripped away, in favor of sunny, heedless pleasure, as the painting makes manifest in its brilliant, sun-streaked and luminous palette, its masterly but rapid and liquid handling, and its irrepressible esprit.

A drawing for the head of the girl is known through photographs, and was published by Alexandre Ananoff. The influence of Fragonard’s composition was wide-spread, even into the realm of sculpture: a charming terracotta in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, in the style of Clodion and historically ascribed to him, reproduces the central figure of La Gimblette and her dog, but transferred from a bed to a woodland setting. (see A. Poulet & G. Scherf, Clodion 1738-1814, catalogue of the exhibition, Paris, 1992, cat. no. 82, pp. 375-8.) Clodion presumably relied on Bertony’s print for his inspiration.

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