Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Portrait of a Man, ca. 1775, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 × 25 5/8".

“Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures”

National Gallery of Art

RARELY DOES A MERE SHEET OF PAPER radically challenge our view of a major artist’s oeuvre. But this is exactly what happened when, in June 2012, a previously unknown page of brown-ink-and-pencil sketches by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, arguably the most brilliant of the eighteenth-century painters, appeared for sale at a public auction in Paris. The piece contained Fragonard’s own thumbnail renderings of eighteen “fantasy figures,” his exuberantly creative interpretations of this established pictorial genre.1 Produced around 1769, when Fragonard was in his late thirties, these extravagant portraits of dramatically posed individuals in antiquated costumes have always been seen as the painter’s quintessential achievement, the pictures’ loose and open manner, energetic touch, and chromatic daring exerting a lasting influence on key modern painters from Manet to Matisse. Yet these works were also

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