Quintessential Fragonard, this drawing belongs to a group of studies of young women, all executed in red chalk as independent works. Standing or seated, sometimes surrounded by vegetation or in an interior, the young women are depicted as much for their physiognomy as for their pose and the intricacies of the dresses they wear. About fifteen – including the present work – were exhibited in the great monographic show devoted to the artist in Paris and New York, or discussed in its catalogue (Rosenberg, op. cit., 1988-1989, nos. 203-206, 298-300, ill., and p. 433, figs. 3-8). Some of the drawings were reproduced in the crayon manner by such printmakers as Gilles Demarteau or Louis-Marin Bonnet; of others a counterproof was taken. Of the drawing under discussion a counterproof is in a private collection (previously at the sale at the Hôtel des ventes Jacques-Coeur, Bourges, 13 December 1997), while two prints based on it, by Martel and Alexandre Briceau respectively, are known in possibly unique impressions at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris (fig. 1; shelfmark EA MARTEL 2; for the other print, see shelfmark EA BRICEAU 6). Both prints display differences from the drawing, in particular in the placement of the chair on which the woman is dozing, resulting in a subtly less dynamic composition. The size of the prints and the counterproof indicate the drawing was originally somewhat larger, and showed more of the interior, the table and the drawing portfolio at her side.
The drawing poses the question of who is represented, and when it was made. Experts disagree over the date of the different studies, and it seems they were made over a period of about ten years, between 1775 and 1785. Perrin Stein places some of the drawings even earlier, in the first half of the 1770s, based on the existence of a print after one of the drawings, which establishes a terminus ante quem, as it was made by Demarteau, who died in 1776 (P. Stein, Fragonard. Drawing Triumphant. Works from New York Collections, exhib. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016-2017, p. 208, under nos. 69-71, fig. 110). In contrast, two drawings depicting a young woman in the same dress as in the present sheet bear an inscription in pen reading ‘frago 1785’, suggesting the drawing under discussion, too, was made after the artist’s second trip to Rome in 1785: A young woman seated on a chair, at the Courtauld Gallery in London, inv. D.1978.PG.229 (Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 136, fig. 8); and A young woman seated on the ground of unknown location (Porras, op. cit., no. 35, ill.). However, this hypothesis would become untenable if the current drawing is identical with one sold in 1780 (see Provenance), a suggestion for which we are grateful to Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey. Also arguing for an earlier date is the watermark of 1762.
In addition to the drawings just mentioned, several other sanguinessurvive, representing a young woman dressed in the same silk dress ‘with ruffles and a petticoat over a dress in three panels’ and with ‘sleeves folded at the level of the elbows and the trimming forming horizontal folds’ (Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 436). Four more are known, in which the woman is represented in a garden, and all in public collections: a Standing young woman in the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon, inv. D. 2869 (fig. 2; see P. Rosenberg, Les Fragonard de Besançon, Milan, 2006, no. 92, ill.); A Young woman seen from the backin the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, inv. HZ 9789 (fig. 3; see P. Märker in Dessins français du musée de Darmstadt. XVIe, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle, Montreuil, 2007, no. 286, ill.); A standing young woman with hand on hipin the Harvard Art Museums, inv. 1965.276 (fig. 4; see Rosenberg, op. cit., 1988-1989, p. 433, fig. 5); and A standing young woman seen from the back, her dress gathered up in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans, inv. 726 (Rosenberg, op. cit., 1988-1989, no. 206, ill.).
Long erroneously thought to be Fragonard’s sister-in-law, Marguerite Gérard, the sitter is now often identified as his daughter Rosalie Fragonard (1769-1788), in particular for the present drawing when it was first exhibited in 1978-1979 (Williams, op. cit, 1978-1979). In 1785 Rosalie was fifteen, which could be the age of the woman in the drawing under discussion; but if the drawing was the one offered at auction in 1780, the idea can no longer be entertained, as Rosalie was only eleven that year. Thus, both date and identification remain to be determined. It is quite possible that Fragonard used several different models, wearing the same dress.
The success of this series was assured in the late 19th Century by the Goncourt brothers, who praise how ‘the red chalk, almost crushed under the artist’s pressure, seeming to flog the backgrounds with its corkscrew markings, brutalizes the stuffs, the trimming of a dress, rumples triumphantly the fanciful fripperies and adornments of costume, attacks with the same force the features, hacking them with shadow, and performs the miracle of revealing, beneath such violent handling, the smile of a pretty woman’ (quoted from Stein, op. cit., p. 213).