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In 2016, two paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard were unearthed in a Normandy chateau after languishing in obscurity for over 200 years. Following a blocked export license, a declaration of national treasure status, and a concerted fundraising effort, the set has been acquired by the French state and will enter the holdings of the Musée Fabre in southern France. The transfer, which marks the first works by Fragonard to enter the regional museum’s collection, was celebrated in an official ceremony held in Montpellier on July 22, which was attended by the French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin.
Born in Grasse, France, in 1732, Fragonard was a prolific Rococo painter, printmaker, and draftsman who is perhaps best-known today for his elaborate fête galantes, or depictions of revelers in pastoral settings. Several years after being awarded the Prix de Rome, the artist made his way to Italy, where he studied at the French Academy in Rome from 1756 to 1761 before returning to Paris. Le Jeu de la Palette and La Bascule, both painted circa 1761 to 1765, were inspired by his time in Rome — particularly at the verdant Villa d’Este in Tivoli — and influenced by his studies of Italian painting.
The two compositions depict revelers at play among outdoor ruins set in sprawling bucolic idylls, with great emphasis placed on the landscape. In “La Bascule,” partygoers, including a cherubic infant, ride a makeshift seesaw. “Le Jeu de la Palette” portrays a group of youths playing a game in which the winner, who has located a hidden object, smacks the loser with a wooden paddle. The set of paintings belonged to Pierre Jacques Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt, the Receiver General of Finances in Montauban. An amateur artist himself, the Receiver General was an involved patron who traveled to Italy with Fragonard from 1773 to 1774. In 1786, after Bergeret de Grancourt’s death, the paintings were auctioned off in Paris and subsequently disappeared from the record. Research now indicates that they were purchased by an art dealer and subsequently entered the collection of Nicolas d’Orglandes, a deputy and peer of France.
“La Bascule” and “Le Jeu de la Palette” resurfaced in the summer of 2016 when Thaddée Prate, a specialist at French auction house Tajan, was inventorying a castle in Normandy. Prate identified the two paintings, which were hung six feet above the ground in a cluttered room, as being by Fragonard, to the surprise of the family who ordered the inventory. When the family applied for an export license to sell the works, which were jointly estimated at about six million euros (or around seven million dollars), they found themselves blocked by France’s advisory commission on national treasures. Once the paintings were officially classified as national treasures in May of 2017, the French state had 30 months to raise the necessary funds to acquire them. Between aid from the state via the Heritage Fund, funding from the Louvre, a corporate sponsorship, and a supplementary tax mechanism, the money was cobbled together.
Musée Fabre, which has been classified as an official Musée de France since 2002, has a robust acquisitions policy: additions to the collection this year include an 18th-century still life by Dominique Joseph Van der Burch and a 19th-century painting by Adolphe Leleux. The decision to transfer the Fragonard paintings to the Montpellier institution is linked to an effort on the part of the French state to decentralize its Parisian art collections in a show of support for regional museums. A press release from the French Ministry of Culture indicated that Bachelot-Narquin was “delighted with the success of an emblematic operation both for the enrichment of public collections and for the cultural action of the State in the territories.”
Michaël Delafosse, Mayor of Montpellier, released a statement thanking the French Ministry of Culture, the Louvre, and the additional patrons who enabled what he called an “unprecedented” acquisition. Delafosse continued:
“The addition of these two works by Fragonard to the museum’s collections is a real present, at a time when the public is gradually finding its way back to cultural institutions. It also testifies to the will of the State to share its heritage with the whole of the French territory. This arrival is a happy event for the museum, for Culture, for Montpellier.”
The paintings will be on view in an exhibition at the museum from December 16, 2021 to March 6, 2022.
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