Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures at the National Gallery, Washington DC

Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures at the National Gallery, Washington DC

One of the most famous and prolific artists of eighteenth-century, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) is known for his sophisticated yet fluid style. His remarkable talents were fostered in Paris while studying with François Boucher, and developed further at the French Academy in Rome. Despite all the academic training, his works appear less studied and formal than those of his peers, and instead showcase his loose but skillful brush techniques and masterful use of color.

Here on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington is a charming collection of 14 portraits entitled the Fantasy Figures. Fragonard’s subjects are radiant in their fashionable finery with jewels, silks, feathers and frilly collars. Men and women are shown at leisure or enjoying artistic pursuits, singing, playing instruments or acting. In fact, once you enter the exhibit, you feel like a guest at an elegant party surrounded by the stylish elite of eighteenth-century Paris.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl Reading, c. 1769, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Mellon Bruce in memory of her father, Andrew W. Mellon

Yet you might wonder what makes this somewhat small exhibit so significant considering Fragonard created over 550 paintings and thousands of drawings in his lifetime.

The answer lies in an important revelation that emerged at a Paris auction in 2012. The art world discovered Fragonard’s “Sketches of Portraits,” a faded piece of paper showing 18 small thumbnail sketches of the paintings, all but one captioned with the name of the subject. This significant finding upended the idea that these portraits are of anonymous models but are instead of actual people. Furthermore, the captions unveil a wealth of understanding about Fragonard’s social and artistic network.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Sketches of Portraits, c. 1769,
drawing, Private Collection, Paris

For example, “Portrait of a Man” shows a handsome man reading in a pensive pose, for many years thought to be Denis Diderot, the great philosopher and writer during the Enlightenment. Yet Fragonard’s corresponding sketch is captioned with the name Meunier, now believed to be the portrait of Ange Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon, an author and journalist of the time.

Or consider the elegant aristocrat shown in “Woman with a Dog” – her creamy white complexion matched by the pearls adorning her hair and neck, while she holds her white lap dog with a blue ribbon. Thanks to the caption on the sketches, we learn this is Marie Émilie Coignet de Courson, a prominent socialite from a noble Burgundian family.

This first exhibit to showcase many of the Fantasy Figures since the 2012 discovery is certainly important in the art world, and as well a wonderful visit for any art lover visiting the Washington area this autumn.

The exhibition runs from October 8 – December 3, 2017. National Gallery of Art, 6th and Constitution Ave., NW, Washington DC, Tel: 202-737-4215. Website:

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Portrait of a Man, c. 1769, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris

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Phil Tremo is the France Today Ambassador for Washington DC. Phil has been charmed by France ever since a school trip to the popular Festival d’Avignon. Over the years, he has explored many regions of l’Hexagone, including a recent vacation to Champagne to pick grapes during harvest season - Santé! Back at home in Washington, D.C., he enjoys a variety of French cultural events, including films, concerts, and language classes. He is excited to be representing France Today in the D.C. area.

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