In the late 1770’s, perhaps to compensate for a lack of painting commissions brought about by a change in taste in favour of Neoclassicism, Fragonard began to turn his considerable talents towards book illustration. His work in this genre resulted in some of his most exuberant, atmospheric wash drawings, epitomized by the series of some 150 large sheets depicting scenes from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Other literary works illustrated by Fragonard include editions of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the Contes et nouvelles en vers of La Fontaine. These drawings were greatly admired in the 19th century, and were collected by the Goncourt brothers and Baron Roger Portalis, among others.
This charming drawing belongs with a distinctive group of pen and wash illustrations by Fragonard, all depicting the courtship of a young couple, for which the literary source has for many years remained a mystery. (A summary account of this series is given in Eunice Williams, Drawings by Fragonard in North American Collections, exhibition catalogue, Washington and elsewhere, 1978-1979, pp.142-143, under no.57.) The appearance of the present drawing, however, and in particular the inscription on its former mount, has finally resolved the issue. Eunice Williams has recently identified this series of drawings as having been inspired by Stanislas-Jean de Bouffler’s story Aline, reine de Golconde. Published in 1761, this conte tells the story of the romance between a young nobleman and a girl of humble origins. The book established the literary reputation of its young author, the Chevalier de Bouffler (1737-1815), who at the time of its publication was a seminarian, though he soon abandoned the priesthood. The tale became immensely popular, and was adapted and performed as a ballet several times in the 1770’s and 1780’s.
At least six other drawings by Fragonard illustrating scenes from de Bouffler’s Aline, reine de Golconde are known, each similar in style and dimensions to the present sheet. Three are in museum collections; a Departure by Coach in the Art Institute of Chicago, a Young Man Rushing Towards a Girl in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Versailles, and A Young Woman Accosted by a Suitor in the Musée Paul Arbaud in Aix-en-Provence. Another drawing, Le baise-main, is in a private collection in New York, while two further sheets have recently appeared on the London and New York art markets.
Eunice Williams, who has dated this group of drawings to the late 1770’s and 1780’s, has noted of the series that ‘here Fragonard employs a quick shorthand manner of drawing to describe the forms. The pressure on his chalk is even lighter than before, and the lines more angular and abrupt. Multiple strokes of varying length indicate the legs, feet and arms, while at the same time they seem to suggest the sequential motion of the figures. The effect may be unintentional, but it is wholly felicitous and appropriate for the narrative subjects.’