In 1780, Marie-Anne Fragonard, a miniaturist of some talent and wife of the great painter, gave birth to a son, Alexandre-Evariste (1780-1850), in Grasse. It had been eleven years since the birth of his beloved daughter Rosalie (1769-1788), and the painter must have been captivated at having, once again, a growing, frisky and inquisitive child to observe in his house (and studio). Beginning in the early 1780s he painted a number of small portraits of children, some of which may depict Alexandre-Evariste himself.
While observing that 'there must have been a clientele that was truly captivated by such pictures' -- which include the ravishing little oval of a boy wearing a 'Spanish' ruff in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino (Cuzin, op. cit., 1988, no. 370), the Portrait of Fanfan in a private collection in Kansas City (Cuzin, ibid., no. 369), and the Portrait of a Young Boy in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Cuzin, ibid., no. 384) -- Jean-Pierre Cuzin cautions that their 'sweet little faces...were probably not exclusively portraits of the young Alexandre-Evariste'. Pierre Rosenberg adopts a harder line in his discussion of an identified portrait drawing of Evariste in the Muse du Louvre, warning that 'there is no evidence that any of the other portraits of children painted by Fragonard during much of his career represent Alexandre-Evariste...'. There can be little doubt, however, that the birth of his son activated Fragonard's intense interest in painting children during the 1780s.
There is a strong physical resemblance between the child in the well-known Hartford painting -- whoever he or she might have been -- and the boy in another Fragonard painting of the period, the celebrated Child Dressed as Pierrot (Cuzin, ibid., no. 379), which has always been one of the most beloved treasures of the Wallace Collection, London. The children in both paintings are round-faced and fat-cheeked with small, upturned noses, large gray eyes and wavy blond hair. Nevertheless, they probably portray different models since the Hartford Child is little more than an infant, while the Wallace Pierrot is a boy of four or five; in addition, and despite the fact that children of both sexes were usually dressed in the same clothes until they were around the age of seven years old, the pink ribboned and bonneted child in the present painting might easily be a girl.
It is impossible to date the Hartford Child with precision, but it would almost certainly have been painted at the same moment as the Wallace Pierrot: the smoothly blended, soft-focus application of thick, ice-cream shades of pink, white and ivory colored oil paint are identical in each work and indicative of a fairly late date in Fragonard's career. Indeed, Rosenberg compares both the subject and technique of the Hartford Child to the miniatures that Fragonard and his wife executed during the same period, and dates the painting circa 1780-5; Cuzin places the painting slightly later, around 1785-8. Regardless of who is depicted or when it was painted, the Hartford Child is an affectionate portrayal of a fair-haired youth that displays Fragonard's unexcelled gift for capturing the spirit and vivacity of childhood.
In a Louis XV carved giltwood frame.