La Jardinière dates from the early to mid-1750s, shortly after Fragonard's departure from Boucher's studio, and it is among the artist's earliest independent works. Born in Grasse, the son of a glove maker, Fragonard moved to Paris when he was six years old. He was admitted to Chardin's workshop, where he learned the rudiments of painting, and then applied to study under Boucher, who, impressed by his rapid progress, admitted Fragonard as his pupil. Many years later, Théophile Fragonard recounted that his grandfather entered Boucher's workshop around 1749/50 and that the master 'accepted him immediately without asking him for an honorarium, reckoning that he would be useful in more ways than one!' It seems likely, as Pierre Rosenberg has suggested, that Fragonard was employed surreptitiously as an assistant in Boucher's studio even after his admission to the prestigious École Royale des Elèves Protégés in 1752 -- in violation of the strict rules of the school, to be sure, but Fragonard was poor and Boucher needed the talented painter to work on the many commissions ordered from his workshop. This would account for the fact that many of Fragonard's early genre paintings are executed quite consciously in the 'goût Boucher', and that more than a few were, early on, misidentified as the work of Fragonard's master. Famously, when Fragonard's pendant paintings known as Blindman's Buff (Toledo Museum of Art) and The Seesaw (Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) - the finest of his amorous genre scenes from this period - were engraved by Jacques-Firmin Beauvarlet in 1760, they were originally credited to Boucher rather than Fragonard in the first state of the prints, an error that was corrected in the second state.
The young painter, who had so skilfully learned to emulate Boucher's distinctive style, naturally enough sought early success with independent works in Boucher's most commercially appreciated genre. The subject of La Jardinière was a favourite of the young Fragonard who became something of a specialist in decorative canvasses depicting Gardeners and Gardening Girls. In addition to Blindman's Buff and its pendant, the best of these paintings, and the best known of them, are the suite of four large canvasses in the Detroit Institute of Arts depicting scenes from country life - The Shepherdess, The Harvester, Woman Gathering Grapes and The Gardener - that may have been intended to represent allegories of the Seasons. Fragonard produced a number of replicas, reductions and variations on paintings from the series, as well as other related subjects - including Spring and Summer from the Hôtel Matignon in Paris (in situ), The Cage (or The Happy Lovers) in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, The Young Woman with a Wheelbarrow and Two Children (or The Joys of Motherhood) in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and The Shepherdess in the Milwaukee Art Museum (fig. 1) - that originally served as overdoors, single ornamental panels, or in larger, multi-panelled decorative schemes. All of these paintings depict pretty young maids, mothers and shepherdesses gathering flowers in gardens that overflow with Nature's abundance, and all exhibit the vibrant colouring, varied and virtuoso paint handling, and graceful sense of movement that are consistent with a style of painting that pre-dates the artist's departure for Rome in 1756 (where he went to study at the French Academy).
Nothing is known of the origins of La Jardinière, but it was certainly intended as an overdoor or decorative canvas that would have been installed in boiserie panelling. Like most overdoors, it was probably executed on a scalloped or otherwise shaped canvas that was cut down on the sides and bottom in the late 18th - or early 19th centuries to create the more regularised format we now see. (One must acknowledge that this is purely speculative, as the painting is not recorded as ever having been different in format from the way it now appears). It is very similar in scale and handling to the somewhat wider painting of The Shepherdess in Milwaukee (which has later canvas additions that fill in its scalloping and make it rectangular in format) and the young maidens in the two paintings assume complementary poses, suggesting that they might originally have been elements in the same, unidentified decorative suite. Like The Shepherdess, La Jardinière dazzles with the innocent charm of its vision, the bravura handling of its brushwork, and the distinctive intensity of its sun-kissed palette of citric yellows, oranges and melon pinks.