This beautiful, well-preserved genre subject by Fragonard is a newly rediscovered painting, lost to scholars since the 19th century and reproduced here for the first time.
Its earliest history, however, is remarkably well documented. It was in the celebrated collection of Louis-Gabriel de Véri-Raionard, the marquis de Véri (1722-1785), a member of the noblesse d'épée from Séguret, near Avignon, who in the 1770s and '80s assembled one of the most illustrious collections of contemporary French painting in Paris. A rather obsure figure whose biography remains sketchy, Véri started actively acquiring art in the mid-1770s, several years after he rented a grand townhouse in the rue des Saints-Pères that required an appropriately opulent new decor. By the time of his death in 1785, Véri was listed in Thiérry's Almanach du voyageur as possessing the eighth most important picture cabinet in Paris, and his assembly of modern French paintings was unrivalled. Colin Bailey observes that Véri's collection, which seems to have been made available for artists to study, and included recent works by Vernet, Pierre, Hubert Robert and Lagrenée, would have impressed the visitor as 'strikingly contemporary and somewhat modish.'
Véri's favourite artists, without doubt, were Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Fragonard, and he collected their newest works in depth, managing to acquire several of their greatest pictures. Among his many paintings by Greuze, he bought the famous Girl with a Dog (private collection) at Madame du Barry's auction in 1777 for 7,200 livres, the record price paid for the work of a living artist; that same year he purchased The Father's Curse (Paris, Musée du Louvre) directly from Greuze, and commissioned its companion The Punished Son (Paris, Musée du Louvre) in 1778. His ten paintings by Fragonard included The Two Sisters (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) which seems to have belonged originally to the abbé de Saint-Non; one of the several surviving versions of Sappho and Cupid; and what is perhaps the most remarkable and unlikely pairing of paintings ever made, a deeply pious New Testament episode depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds, and The Bolt ('Le Verrou') (both Paris, Louvre), a still startling scene of violent, forced seduction. These were two of the artist's supreme masterpieces and the finest paintings in Véri's collection, and they caused a sensation when they appeared in the sale of his estate in 1785, with the Adoration achieving 9,500 livres, the highest price paid for a work by Fragonard in the 18th century. (The most thorough accounting of Véri's life and collecting can be found in C.B. Bailey, Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Paris, New Haven & London, 2002, pp. 101-130.)
Young Girl Leaning on a Window Ledge follows upon Fragonard's celebrated series of figures de fantaisie, which date from the end of the 1760s. Like the fantasy portraits, it combines loose, bravura brushwork with incisive characterization, and pays homage to an Old Master that Fragonard loved - in this case Rembrandt, whose rich earthen palette, golden lighting and profound human sympathy Fragonard reinvents with genius. It shares its size and format with a whole series of bust-length depictions of pretty girls in which Fragonard specialized throughout the 1760s and '70s, but it stands head-and-shoulders above most of those charming but generic young lovelies. Here, Fragonard has devotedly studied a real sitter, capturing both her appearance and her spirit, conveying the sparkling vitality in her eyes and imbuing her flesh with the warmth and pliancy of life. Judging from the simplicity and directness of its presentation and the effortless accomplishment of its execution, Young Girl Leaning on a Window Ledge dates from the mid-to-late 1770s. It is precisely this period - roughly 1775 to 1779 - when Véri purchased the greater part of his collections, and it is not unreasonable to assume that he either commissioned the painting from Fragonard - as he did the Adoration and The Bolt - or at least bought it directly from the artist. It appears as lot 40 in Véri's sale, where it is described unambiguously:
'Fragonard. A young girl seen in front of a table on which her hands are resting; her head is bare and embellished with a single ribbon, her face seen in a three-quarter view and her shoulders covered with a fichu. This piece is vigorously painted and produces a great effect. H. 17 pouces by L. 14 pouces by L. 14 pouces. [45.9 x 37.8 cm.] Canvas.'
Despite the number of paintings of young girls by the artist, no painting other than the present one matches this description in every detail.
The present painting is identical in size, format and handling to the beloved Young Scholar by Fragonard in the Wallace Collection (fig. 1), and the two pictures must have been 'married' immediately after the Véri sale. The Wallace Collection's Young Scholar appeared at auction in Paris on 2 May 1789, lot 111, in a sale of property from the Calonne-Angelot family, where it was sold with a pendant whose description matches the present lot:
'Fragonard. Two young girls seen in half-length, one of whom is seen in a three-quarter view, her two hands resting on the ledge of a casement, bareheaded; the other with her two hands set down on a book, where she appears to meditate on her reading: the two paintings are well coloured with an easy and spirited touch. H. 17 pouces by L. 13 pouces. Canvas.'
The identification of the surface on which the young girl rests her hand as a window casement rather than a table is perfectly plausible (and may in fact be the more accurate). In addition, the Calonne-Angelot sale catalogue, even more emphatically than the Véri catalogue, stresses that the girl rests both of her hands on this ledge: in no other known painting of a girl by Fragonard are both of her hands positioned in this way. Furthermore, the present painting and the Wallace canvas (which have recently been compared side-by-side) respond to each other effectively as a pair, and the pairing of the two by a collector in Fragonard's own lifetime - although this was not, apparently, Fragonard's intention when he created them - seems perfectly understandable. Indeed, they remained united until 1872 when they appeared at auction as succeeding lots (L'Etude and La Joie) in the Montesquiou-Fezensac sale, and were separated after L'Etude was acquired by Sir Richard Wallace for Hertford House.