This work executed circa 1769 by Fragonard, then at the peak of his art, is perhaps part of his famous series of fantastical portraits, several of which are held at the Louvre Museum.
This is a group of portraits painted with quick brushstrokes, all in the same format, depicting the artists’ friends or customers, such as Diderot, Mademoiselle Guimard, a famous dancer, and the Abbot of St. Non. The upper half of these figures are depicted dressed in opulent “fantasy” outfits or “Spanish-style” costumes as they were known at the time, accompanied by a few accessories that perhaps symbolised the model’s profession. Although it is of a slightly different size from the rest of the series, the painting at the Petit Palais is typical of these genre portraits.
For a long time the colouring pencils and paintbrushes led us to believe that this was a portrait of the pastel artist, Charles Naudin. Because of the presence of the globe, most historians now believe, albeit without certainty, that Fragonard in fact painted Jérôme de La Lande, (Joseph-Jérôme Le François known as Lalande, 1732-1807), an astronomer who was very famous in his time. Lalande became famous by predicting the passage of Halley’s Comet, accurate to a month, and also calculated the distance between the earth and the moon.
The facial features, particularly the very domed forehead, and the bald head are reminiscent of the official portraits of Jérôme de LaLande, in particular a terracotta bust modelled by Houdon. However, without attaching too much importance to resemblance, Fragonard seems to have improved on the looks of his model, who was very ugly.
Whoever the model was, this remains a beautiful painting in which Fragonard essentially sought to capture a fleeting expression. With a hasty execution and vigorous, even imperious touch, he gives a sketch-like feel to his work, conveying the vivacity and intelligence of its subject wonderfully.
M. A. P.