Young Woman and a Herdsman in a Landscape


Young Woman and a Herdsman in a Landscape

1732 France

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A spectacular new addition to Fragonard's oeuvre, Young Woman and a Herdsman in a Landscape had been regarded as an important lost work for more than two centuries when it was rediscovered in 2000. It belongs to a body of more than 30 surviving paintings, made over a period of at least a decade, in which Fragonard reproduced the manner of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, especially those of Jacob van Ruisdael (1629-1682).

Although his trip is undocumented, Fragonard drew copies of several paintings that are known to have been in Dutch collections during his lifetime, indicating that he travelled through Holland, perhaps in the mid-1760s or in the early 1770’s. (For evidence of his trip, see P. Rosenberg, in the exhibition catalogue Fragonard, 1988, pp. 178-83.) It seems equally clear that he could have painted 'Dutch' landscapes well before he made the journey, since the finest examples of seventeenth-century northern landscape art were abundant in French collections and appeared with considerable frequency in the salerooms. As their small scale and domestic subject matter made Dutch paintings of the Golden Age well suited to the intimate interiors of Paris townhouses, eminent dealers like Edme Gersaint (Watteau's agent) made trips to Holland to scout out new stock for their French clientele. "Fashion", the Comte de Caylus reported in an address to the Académie Royale, "has almost banished Italy from our cabinets and nowadays offers us nothing but Flemings". While Fragonard was undoubtedly drawn to northern art by personal inclination (he frequently copied Rubens, Rembrandt and van Dyck, as well), the popular taste among French collectors for Dutch landscape surely influenced his decision to paint his own landscapes in ‘le goût hollandais’. There is also considerable evidence that some of these pictures were commissioned as pendants to seventeenth-century Dutch paintings: for example, the de Boynes collection sale catalogue (15 March 1785) cites "a which country women are doing their wash" by Fragonard (lot 92) as the pendant to a painting by Jan Wynants "from the same collection". (For a more extended discussion of modern French pendants made for Dutch old masters, see C. B. Bailey, "Conventions of the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet de Tableaux", Art Bulletin, September 1987, p. 431 passim.)

The first recorded owner of Young Woman and a Herdsman in a Landscape was the successful Paris silversmith and jeweller Dubois; the painting appeared in the sale of his collection on 31 March 1784, lot 131, where it is described as:

“Un joli tableau, paysage, à la gauche duquel se voyent une rivière et des lointains; le devant offre une jeune femme portant un paquet sur sa tête, et accompagnée d’un petit garçon: ils passent sous des arbres près d’un pâtre qui est monté sur un âne. L’épaisseur du feuillage et des arbres répand sur eux, ainsi que sur deux boeufs et une génisse, une demi-teinte qui produit un effet piquant et neuf dans ce charmant morceau, qui doit être mis au rang des meilleurs ouvrages de ce célèbre artiste. Hauteur 14 pouces, largeur 16 pouces 8 lignes. T(oile)” (“Landscape, on the left of which a river and distant prospects can be seen; in the foreground is a young woman carrying a bundle on her head, and accompanied by a small boy: they pass by a shepherd on a donkey under some trees. The thickness of the trees’ foliage casts a half-tone over them, as well as over the two oxen and a heifer, which produces a striking and novel effect in this piece, which must be counted on a par with the best works of this celebrated artist. Height 14 pouces, Width 16 pouces 8 lignes. C(anvas)”)

Despite the small discrepancies (typical of eighteenth-century cataloguing) between the catalogue description and the Colnaghi painting - it is on wood, not canvas, the river is on the right rather than the left, and there is no heifer - the present work matches the dimensions and vivid description precisely and it is without doubt Dubois's picture. The succeeding lot in Dubois's catalogue is a second painting by Fragonard, a version of Waking Up (Private Collection, France; Cuzin, op. cit., 1987, no. 202), one of the artist's most erotic compositions, in which two pretty young girls barely covered by filmy nightgowns arise from a plushly upholstered bed in which they spent the night playing with their lapdogs. That the same collector owned one of Fragonard's most exuberantly carnal paintings as well as a picture by him that is rustic, elegiac and art historically learned, suggests that Fragonard was not necessarily creating different sorts of work for different markets, but rather that contemporary collectors were impressed by the variety of his genius, appreciating equally his gaily 'Parisian' and tranquil 'Dutch' modes.

In the present painting, Fragonard displays not only his intimate familiarity with the Dutch masters, but also the ways in which he transforms their works into an idiom unmistakably his own. The great trees, with their softly backlit foliage and distinctive, sharply twisting branches, are inspired by paintings by Jacob van Ruisdael; the thickly impasted, cloud-spotted sky and river vista is reminiscent of Salomon van Ruysdael; and the white and brown ox might well be a direct quotation from Aelbert Cuyp. The inclusion of one or two tiny figures dressed in brilliant red is characteristic of Fragonard's 'Dutch' paintings and serves to enliven their otherwise muted and earthy colour schemes. Ruisdael also included small figures, often dressed in red, into his landscapes, but they are always peripheral, and barely noticed, while Fragonard's figures assume greater prominence. This might have reflected the tastes of French clients who found Ruisdael's landscapes a little too sombre and sparse. At least once, the artist was called upon by the owner of a Ruisdael landscape to add several figures to it (see the catalogue of the sale of the Chevalier de Clesle, 4 December 1786), while The Pond (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth) - which is the only landscape by Fragonard known to have been directly copied from an original by Ruisdael - differs from its Dutch model only by the prominent inclusion of two pretty washerwomen and a dog. Certainly Young Woman and a Herdsman includes a greater profusion of picturesque elements than would usually be found in Ruisdael's works, though Fragonard never allows his embellishments to disturb the poetic unity of his composition.

The addition of 'rococo' figures was not mere decoration, however, but a vital part of Fragonard's transformation of Dutch art. His landscapes are never slavish imitations, but rather personal interpretations of northern art: through his intense penetration of Ruisdael's art, Fragonard learned to create new 'Ruisdaels' suitable to a new age and a culture far removed from that of seventeenth-century Holland.

Although one of Fragonard's 'Dutch' landscapes - The Herd, a painting lost since 1921 - was recorded as having been signed and dated 1775, these pictures are generally assigned approximate dates of fully a decade earlier. Jean-Pierre Cuzin (op. cit., 2001, pp. 170-71) cites the vivacious and fatty paint handling of the present work and its lively little figures when proposing to date it early in the series, around 1765, a dating with which the present author concurs.

Dubois, Paris; Sale, Paris, 31 March 1784, lot 131, where purchased by Desmaret.
P. Nohlac, J. H. Fragonard 1732-1806, Paris, 1906, p. 137; G. Wildenstein, Fragonard, London, 1960, p. 231, cat. no. 149; P. Rosenberg, Paris, Tout l’œuvre de Fragonard, 1989, p. 128;
J.-P. Cuzin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, vie et œuvre, Fribourg, 1987, p. 349, cat. no. D 101; J.-P. Cuzin, "Fragonard: quelques nouveautés et quelques questions", in Mélanges en Hommage à Pierre Rosenberg: Peintures et dessins en France et en Italie XVIIe - XVIIIe siècles, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2001, pp. 170-71, and note 8, ill. fig. 4.
Height 39.40 cm (15.51 inches)
Width 37.60 cm (14.80 inches)
Oil on panel
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