Although no archival evidence has been uncovered to confirm the eighteenth-century provenance of Girl holding a dove and its companion piece, Girl playing with a dog and a cat, both René Gimpel (1921; published 1963) and Georges Wildenstein (1960) offered accounts of the origin and history of the paintings. In 1906, the pair of tondos was discovered by Gimpel and the marquis de Biron still installed in the original carved panelling in the house of Mme. de Mondonville in Saint-Brice-la-Foret, a village north of Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of the forest of Montmorency. The house - the château de Saint-Brice - was a folie that had been built in the 1770s by André Vassal (brother of the prominent connoisseur and collector of Fragonard's works, J.-A. Vassal de Saint-Hubert), as a gift for his mistress, Marie-Catherine Riggieri. She sold it in 1805, with its furnishings intact, to a 'sieur Revenaz', who subsequently resold it to M. de Guy, mayor of Saint-Brice. The mayor's son-in-law, Colonel de Mondonville, inherited the house upon his death, and it later passed to the colonel's widow, who sold the paintings to Gimpel and Biron; Baron Edouard de Rothschild acquired them shortly afterwards from Wildenstein & Co.
Marie-Catherine Riggieri (1751-1830) and her two sisters, Marie-Thérèse (1754-1837) and Marie-Madeleine (1760-1841), were among the more celebrated demi-mondaines of their era. Appearing under the stage name 'Colombe', the beautiful (and notorious) Venetian-born actresses of the Comédie italienne made a sensation in late-eighteenth-century Paris (see Stern, loc. cit.). Ever since the paintings were rediscovered a century ago still installed in the bedroom of Marie-Catherine's former residence - Girl holding a dove encased in boiserie above the fireplace, Girl playing with a dog and a cat in panelling on the wall opposite - it has been an article of faith that the pictures portray the actress and one of her sisters. Despite this - and despite Fragonard's known connections to the sisters, the fact that the artist very likely made the paintings specifically for Marie-Catherine Colombe, and the prominent role played by doves ('dove' in French is 'colombe') in the one picture - there is no reason to believe that the paintings depict any of the sisters, as Pierre Rosenberg first acknowledged (1987). Certainly, nothing about their appearance or format suggests that they were intended as portraits. The pictures follow a series of bust-length decorations of seductive young models, usually in allegorical guise, a vein that Fragonard had been working successfully throughout the 1770s: in addition to a Buste de jeune fille in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard (Cuzin, op. cit., no. 219), another in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and a Buste de Minerve in the Detroit Institute of Art (ibid., no. 230), there are at least a dozen similar pictures (see ibid., nos. 218-28), most of which have been dubiously identified as depicting one or other Colombe sister in the past.
The principal difference between the Rothschild tondos and the aforementioned genre paintings is the extraordinary energy, delicacy and imagination that the artist brought to the commission, a creative engagement that elevates Girl holding a dove and Girl playing with a dog and a cat far above his routine production, to the airy heights of Fragonard's greatest accomplishments. Rather than portraits, the subjects of the pictures are fictive creations that served as emblems of the joyfulness, vivacity and inviting sensuality which were hallmarks of a popular reputation that the Colombe sisters made great efforts to cultivate. The doves in Girl holding a dove were surely intended to make play on the sisters' adopted surname, just as they were meant to evoke classical associations with Venus, Goddess of Love, for whom they were traditional attributes. In the same way, the cat that scratches a frightened lapdog in the pendant painting should probably be understood as an allusion to the power that a beautiful woman holds over her male admirers. Nevertheless, it is less the allegorical elements that serve to enliven the paintings, than the remarkable virtuosity of Fragonard's paint handling and the sense of pure pleasure with which he infuses them. The warm, gilded sunlight that floods Girl holding a dove contrasts subtly with the silvery sparkle of Girl playing with a dog and a cat, and the open, creamy brushwork and inventive use of curving lines within the circular format make these pendants, as Pierre Rosenberg has observed, among 'Fragonard's most perfect and most successful works' (1987).
If the paintings were, indeed, commissioned for the château de Saint-Brice, they would have to date from after 1769, when André Vassal purchased the land on which the house would be built. The style of the pictures corresponds to a date somewhere between the mid-1770s and 1780, and Rosenberg (1987) gave further support to this dating when he published a recently discovered red chalk drawing that he places in the same period (sold Drouôt, Paris, 29 November 1985, lot 60): that drawing depicts a young girl leaning on a worktable, behind which Fragonard hastily but clearly copied Girl playing with a dog and a cat - unframed and still sitting on the floor of his studio.
Girl holding a dove (said to be a Portrait of Marie-Catherine Colombe)
Oil on canvas, circular
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Chardin-Fragonard, 1907 (ex-catalogue).
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Les Chefs-d'oeuvre des Collections françaises retrouvés en Allemagne par la Commission de Récupération artistique et les Services alliés, 1946, no. 17, description by M. Florisoone
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fragonard, P. Rosenberg, ed., 1987-8, no. 245.
27½ in. (69.8 cm.) diam.
P. de Nolhac, J.-H. Fragonard, 1732-1806. With a catalogue of paintings sold at auction from 1770 to 1905, by H. Pannier, Paris, 1906, illustrated between pp. 56-7.
A. Dayot, 'Fragonard', L'Art et les artistes (special issue) 5, no. 27, June-July 1907, illustrated p. 151.
A. Dayot and L. Vaillat, L'Oeuvre de J.-B.-S. Chardin et de J.-H. Fragonard, Paris, 1907, no. 90, fig. 90.
J. Stern, Mesdemoiselles Colombe, Paris, 1923, pp. 51-2, 59 and 283, illustrated opposite p. XII.
L. Réau, Fragonard, Brussels, 1956, p. 177.
B. de Andia, 'Les Follies de Paris au XVIIIe siecle', Médecine de France, no. 113, 1960, p. 23.
J. Cailleux, 'Fragonard as Painter of the Colombe Sisters', The Burlington Magazine, no. 690, supp. no. 4, September 1960, pp. 111-v, p. ii, fig. 1.
G. Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard, London, 1960, no. 411, fig.170.
R. Gimpel, Diary of an Art Dealer, New York, 1966 (French edition, 1963), p. 158.
D. Wildenstein and G. Mandel, L'opera completa di Fragonard, Milan, 1972, no. 436.
D. Sutton, in catalogue of the exhibition, Fragonard, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 1980, under no. 65.
J.-P. Cuzin, Fragonard, Life and Work, New York, 1988, p. 188, no. 302, pl. 227.
P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris, 1989, no. 361.
(Probably) Marie-Catherine Riggieri (1751-1830), known as Mlle Colombe, château de Saint-Brice; sold with the château in 1805, to
M. Revanaz, who resold the château to
M. de Guy, mayor of Saint-Brice, and by descent to his son-in-law
Colonel de Mondonville, thence to his widow
Madame de Mondonville, by whom sold to
René Gimpel and the marquis de Biron, as of 1906.
with Wildenstein & Co, from whom acquired by
Baron Edouard de Rothschild (1868-1949), Paris.
Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild (1914-99), Tel Aviv.