Fragonard’s “Diderot” was not Diderot after all

   |  22 November 2012  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 22 November 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Le Figaro reports the Musée du Louvre has just admitted the famous portrait of a man browsing a big volume, realised by Fragonard around 1769, was not that of French philosopher Diderot after all.

This famous painting, printed in all school books as the portrait of Denis Diderot, has indeed proved to be the portrait of an entirely unknown man. The work, to be moved on 12 December to the museum’s new branch in Lens, has been renamed Figure de fantaisie. This painting, though probably unfinished, is considered one of Fragonard’s best achievements. Le Figaro underlines the fact that various experts had already questioned the true identity of the portrait’s model, long before this statement of the Louvre.

Last June, French art historian Marie-Anne Dupui-Vachey – author of a monograph on Fragonard, published in 2006 – was intrigued by a drawing put on sale at the Hôtel Drouot. This drawing represented thirteen famous works by Fragonard: under the so-called Diderot portrait she could distinguish a name “illegible for sure, but certainly not that of Diderot”.

Moreover, the man represented on the painting is blue-eyed, while all contemporary reports have established Denis Diderot had brown eyes, as proves the portrait by Louis-Michel Van Loo – artist famous for his academic conformism – realised in 1767 (two years before the Fragonard painting), depicting Diderot with brown eyes indeed. This “sensational” discovery explains furthermore why Diderot, who was a close friend of Fragonard’s, never mentioned this portrait in his writings. When this historic mistake did occur is yet to determine.

Beyond the mystery surrounding this man on the portrait – is he a real man or a figure of pure fantasy? – Marie-Anne Dupui-Vachey considers this discovery gives a flagrant evidence of our ignorance about one of the greatest French painters. When it comes to Fragonard, all labels might deceive. Was the famous portrait of the Abbé de Saint-Non, displayed at the Louvre, really produced in “one hour” as legend has it? For the French historian, Fragonard’s secrets have not yet been unveiled.

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