Combining art, fashion, science, and conservation, this revelatory exhibition brings together—for the first time—some 14 of the paintings known as the fantasy figures by Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). He is considered among the most characteristic and important French painters of his era, and the fantasy figure series—several rapidly executed, brightly colored paintings of lavishly costumed individuals—are some of his most beloved works. The subjects are depicted posed at leisure or employed in various pursuits, such as acting, reading, writing, playing instruments, or singing. Wearing extravagant attire, these figures are dressed in what was known in 18th-century France as à l'espagnole (Spanish style)—plumed hats, slashed sleeves, ribbons, rosettes, ruffs, capes, and accents of red and black.
Fragonard’s fantasy figures are shown alongside a newly discovered drawing covered with 18 thumbnail-sized sketches and apparently annotated in the rococo artist's own hand. The drawing, Sketches of Portraits, emerged at a Paris auction in 2012 and upended several long-held assumptions about the fantasy figures: 14 of the sketches have been identified with these paintings, and four presumably relate to works that remain unknown. All but one of the sketches are annotated with a name, presumably that of the person portrayed or the individual who commissioned the corresponding painting—thereby putting to rest a long-standing debate over whether the fantasy figures depict known individuals or imaginary models. At the National Gallery of Art, the emergence of this drawing prompted a two-year investigation of Young Girl Reading, conducted as a collaborative effort by Yuriko Jackall, assistant curator of French paintings, John K. Delaney, senior imaging scientist, and Michael Swicklik, senior conservator of paintings. Their findings establish Young Girl Reading as a part of the fantasy figure series and shed light upon Fragonard's approach to the ensemble as a whole.
Building upon this research, the exhibition Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures explores the many interpretations of this series in the context of the artist's career and elucidates the development of that career, the identity of his sitters and patrons, and the significance of his innovative imagery. Fragonard strove to create a specific portrait type that showcased the painterly skill for which he was renowned. Created within the competitive atmosphere of the Parisian art world, these works were influenced by a range of events, artworks, and visitors to his studio. Shaped by artistic imagination, these paintings pushed the boundaries of accepted figure painting in the 18th century.
Other works in the exhibition include the rarely lent, privately held portraits of the Harcourt brothers François-Henri, duc d'Harcourt (c. 1770) and Anne-François d'Harcourt, duc de Beuvron (c. 1770), as well as The Vestal (c. 1769–1771), The Actor (c. 1769), and The Singer (c. 1769). Also on view is the Louvre's M. de La Bretèche (c. 1769), which depicts the wealthy brother of one of Fragonard's most devoted patrons, Jean-Claude Richard, abbé de Saint-Non.