Fragonard : "La Guimard" Is Madame de Grave and "Diderot" Is Meu(s)nier

30/11/12 - Discovery and publication - Jean-Honoré Fragonard - The Fragonard portrait which has, almost, always been known as Portrait of Diderot (ill. 5) is in fact not a likeness of the philosopher as proven by the drawing recently auctioned off and published for the first time on 17 July on The Art Tribune by Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey.

1. Cover of the Book entitled
Une facétie de Fragonard

2. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Portrait of Marie-Anne-Éléonore de Grave
Oil on Canvas - 81.5 x 65 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP/R.-G. Ojéda

However, she was not alone in immediately recognizing the probable importance of the sheet. Hubert Duchemin, a Parisian expert and dealer, along with his collaborator Lilas Sharifzadeh, also guessed its likely pedigree. At the auction, Hubert Duchemin made the final bid, a high price given the uncertainty still surrounding the work. After the sale, he turned it over for study to Carole Blumenfeld, the art historian. Now, a small book (ill. 1) will appear on 13 December at Editions Gourcuff-Gradenigo and will reveal the very fruitful results of this research.

Indeed, the discoveries brought to light thanks to this drawing are invaluable for our knowledge of Fragonard who has been definitely acknowledged as the author of this drawing by the artist’s specialists, an attribution also demonstrated by the extraordinary virtuosity of the strokes. Having established this attribution, the legends for each of the sketches (in Fragonard’s own hand) are indisputable.
Thanks to Carole Blumenfeld’s research, about three-fourths of the models whom we should presumably no longer call Figures de Fantaisie have now been identified. Only those known as the Abbé de Saint-Non and his brother Monsieur de La Bretèche do indeed represent those persons.
For instance, to take just one of the most famous examples (we will let our readers discover the others in the book), the portrait at the Louvre (ill. 2) still identified as that of Miss Guimard with the legend "Grave"on the drawing is in no way related to the "premiere danseuse" of the Opera : this was in fact Marie-Anne-Eléonore de Grave !

3. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Sheet with Portrait Sketches, detail
Pen and Brown Ink, Black Chalk - 24 x 34.5 cm
France, Private Collection
Photo : Galerie Hubert Duchemin

4. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Portrait of Anne-Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon (?)
Oil on Canvas - 81 x 65 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP/R.-G. Ojéda

Let us return now to the so-called Portrait of Diderot which has received so much attention from the media in the past few days. The mention shown below the drawing which is a sketch for the painting at the Louvre (ill. 3 and 4) is not at all "illegible" as claimed in Le Figaro. This is clearly, without any doubt at all, "Meunier". Unfortunately, Carole Blumenfeld’s research did not find proof of absolute identification. In all likelihood, and after eliminating all other possibilities, it would seem that this is a likeness of the writer Anne-Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon (1702-1780), the author of various novels all forgotten today (Psaphion ou la courtisane de Smyrne, Le Roman du jour...). He was also a publisher (Phedre in latin, a new edition of Anacreon’s Poems, etc.).

5. Louis Jacques Cathelin (1738-1804)
after François-Xavier Vispré (c. 1730 - ?)
Portrait of Anne-Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

However, the only known portrait of this writer (ill. 5) does not really resemble the man drawn by Fragonard. The nose is especially different we think although it is of course difficult to compare a poor quality engraving with the painter’s marvelous art. On the one hand, we have a stilted and superficial representation, on the other a masterpiece of the portrait genre. As for the name, written "Meunier" and not "Meusnier", this is easily explained by the equivalent pronunciation resulting in variations of spelling of proper names (and even common nouns), demonstrated by the liberties often taken by Fragonard himself. In any case, in all certainty this is a portrait of someone called Meunier (or Meusnier). Another possibility, and also a writer as suggested by the book he is leafing through, might be Jean-Antoine Meunier, French man of letters born in Chalon-sur-Saone in 1707, who died there in 1780, but a name which Carole Blumenfeld eliminated. We will have to now get used to this new identification (though followed still by a question mark), a man of letters certainly but clearly less prestigious than that of the man who published the Encyclopedia. The Louvre can, once again, change the sign on the painting.

This story has several possible morals. First off, we should be skeptical of assertions passed down from one author to another and continuously question anything which has not been positively proven. Secondly, this should encourage art historians to remain humble, as Jean-Pierre Cuzin said to us : if this sheet had disappeared forever, these identifications might have never been made and we would have continued to hold forth with learned discourses on these "figures de fantaisie", as fancifully as their title.
Lastly, all of this teaches us once more that dealers play a major role in making rediscoveries for art history. Although solicited by various collectors and museums abroad for the acquisition of this drawing, Hubert Duchemin (as did at the time Talabardon and Gautier for the Friedrich) was determined that it should be acquired by a French collector, making it possible for it to perhaps end up one day, so we hope, at the Musée du Louvre.

Carole Blumenfeld, Une Facétie de Fragonard. Les révélations d’un dessin retrouvé, 2012, Editions Gourcuff-Gradenigo, 80 p., 20 euros. ISBN : 978-2-35340-147-5.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 4 décembre 2012

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