In late June, a recently rediscovered painting by the French master was sold at the Enchères Champagne auction house for €7.7 million against a pre-sale estimate of €1.5 to €2 million. The painting, entitled Philosopher Reading (c.1768-70) is unusual for Fragonard, who is better known for his flamboyant and lavishly costumed figures, romantic and somewhat erotic compositions and scenes of festival and frivolity. A particularly well-known example is his The Swing at the Wallace Collection, London. Philosopher Reading, on the other hand, features an elderly man, and demonstrates Fragonard’s study of artists such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and Rembrandt (1606-1669). The painting was spotted by art auctioneer Antoine Petit, who was visiting the owners of the work in Marne to appraise the family’s estate for tax inheritance purposes. Petit saw the painting, which the family had assumed was worthless, and suspected it was by Fragonard. A faded signature on the reverse of the frame supported his theory, as did an external group of experts on the artist.
Stéphane Pinta, one expert who authenticated the painting, said of the work: “The paint seems to be moulded or sculpted, at times even applied directly with a finger. Freed from the extreme minutia of the Rococo style, his brush strokes are quick, precise and incredibly expressive.” Subsequent provenance research revealed that the painting had last been seen at auction in 1796, after it had been in the collection of Fragonard’s friend, the miniaturist Pierre Adolph Hall (1739-1793). The huge amount the painting made at sale makes it the third most expensive work by Fragonard ever sold at auction.
In addition to this exciting discovery, a further two paintings by Fragonard have emerged, which until 2017 were thought to have been missing since a record of their sale in 1786. Le Jeu de la Palette (The Paddle Game) and La Bascule (The Seesaw) re-emerged four years ago, when they were discovered at a castle in Normandy. They both feature typical Fragonard-style landscapes, with small figures playing beneath neoclassical remains. The family who found them applied for an export license to sell them abroad, however the French state intervened, declaring the works to be national treasures. It was announced last week that they have been purchased by the French state, with the assistance of the Louvre, and will be displayed at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.
In a statement, the French culture minister, Roselynne Bachelot, said that she is, “delighted with the success of an emblematic operation both for the enrichment of public collections and for the cultural action of the State in the territories.”