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Fragonard's "Young Girl Reading" on special loan to Speed Art Museum
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.

LOUISVILLE, KY.- The Speed Art Museum unveiled a special “Mystery Masterpiece”, Jean Honoré Fragonard’s (1732–1806) Young Girl Reading (c. 1769). The painting is on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through May 15, 2018. The painting was most recently part of the Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

“The Speed is thrilled to showcase this important and beautiful masterpiece,” said Erika Holmquist-Wall, Chief Curator, Speed Art Museum, and Mary and Barry Bingham, Sr. Curator of European and American Paintings and Sculpture. “We are so fortunate and happy to welcome this painting to Kentucky, even for a short while. It’s really a treasure and has to be seen in person.”

The Speed and the National Gallery of Art have participated in reciprocal loans, sending the Speed’s popular Portrait of Madame Adélaïde by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, (c. 1787) to the National Gallery in 2017 (it has since returned to the Speed) where it was on view in the exhibition, America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting, and now welcoming Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading to the Speed.

“This painting is one of the most beloved works in the National Gallery of Art’s collection,” said Yuriko Jackall, the National Gallery’s specialist of eighteenth-century French paintings and curator of Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures. “It doesn’t leave the National Gallery often, so this is a rare opportunity for the Speed to showcase this painting to the public.”

“Fragonard was consistently among the most innovative and brilliant painters of his time,” said Holmquist-Wall. “He was interested in the world as a setting for imagined pleasures, as were his clients, who were mostly private financiers and aristocrats. He developed a style characterized by delicate color and an affinity for witty, lighthearted subjects. It can be pretty risqué, too – Fragonard’s paintings are filled with abundant gardens populated with amorous young couples. Of course, these were very popular with his patrons, and such paintings helped him earn his keep.”

Fragonard epitomized the artistic style known as Rococo, a highly ornate, decorative style of art which was dominant in France during the reign of Louis XV (1715-74). Rococo art was fanciful and airy, often featuring witty, elegant, or voyeuristic subject matter. It was a style that introduced a greater playfulness and sensitivity to feelings and moods. Unfortunately, the demand for such carefree themes ceased with the French Revolution. Until shortly before his death in 1806, Fragonard worked as a curator at the Parisian museum that would eventually become the Louvre, and he died virtually forgotten.

Around 1769, Fragonard painted a group of works known today as his fantasy figures: vibrant canvases showing individual models in fancy dress engaged in different poses and activities. The paintings have a lot in common with each other: they are of nearly identical dimensions; each is reputed to have taken about an hour to complete; the subjects’ attitudes and faces are all similar; they are all dressed in a distinctive style with ruffs and feathers. For decades, Young Girl Reading was associated with the fantasy figure series.

Yet, Young Girl Reading is slightly different. While the other figures gaze directly at the viewer, or off into the distance, she is completely absorbed in her book, her posture relaxed and calm.

“An intriguing note to this painting is that in 2012, researchers discovered a previously unknown drawing by Fragonard that included sketches of 18 paintings related to the fantasy figures, including a sketch corresponding to Young Girl Reading,” said Holmquist-Wall. “In fact, an earlier X-ray of Young Girl Reading revealed that Fragonard had painted the head of the girl over another portrait, but it was impossible to determine the details.”

“The emergence of the drawings was momentous for scholars because it provided vital clues about the meaning of the fantasy figure ensemble. It also provided tangible evidence of a relationship between Young Girl Reading and the group,” added Jackall. “The very first sketch on the first row of the paper represented Young Girl Reading.”

In 2013, Jackall and a team of researchers at the National Gallery used hyperspectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence (XRF), imaging techniques that permitted a clearer view of the underlying portrait. It became obvious that the sitter was a woman wearing a large feathered headdress. Further tests indicated that the painting existed in this state for at least six months before Fragonard painted over it. “This intrigued the research team,” said Holmquist-Wall, “and they recreated a digital simulation of the first portrait, giving us a look at the artist’s original composition, painted over two centuries earlier.”

“Visually, Young Girl Reading is a beautiful painting, highlighting tremendous freedom of brushwork and coloring that it sets Fragonard up as a precursor to the Impressionists,” said Jackall. “Fragonard was a model for those artists who came after him and I hope the loan will introduce new audiences to eighteenth-century French art.”

Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading is on view during the same time as the Speed’s groundbreaking exhibition, Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism, which features over 80 exceptional paintings by 37 women artists from 13 countries. Drawn from prominent collections across the United States and abroad, Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism showcases renowned artists including Mary Cassatt (American) and Rosa Bonheur (French), alongside lesser-known, but equally important peers including Anna Ancher (Danish), Lilla Cabot Perry (American) and Paula Modersohn-Becker (German). Fortuitously, the exhibition also includes the work of Berthe Morisot (French), a great-great niece of Jean Honoré Fragonard. Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism is being featured at the Speed from February 17 through May 13, 2018.

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