It has always been felt that the age of Louis XV finds its most characteristic embodiment in the art of Boucher and Fragonard. Boucher was the king's official painter. Fragonard, a generation younger, lived to the age of Napoleon. Trained by Chardin, Boucher, and Carle van Loo, active for five years in Italy, he developed an art of great versatility; a few academic history paintings in the early years, pastoral and genre scenes in the footsteps of Boucher, landscapes, figure pieces, pictures of courtship, of family life and intimacy, large-scale decorations for Mme du Barry and others, some portraits. As varied as his subjects are his sources of inspiration and his technical means. His teachers, the tradition of the French Rubenist precursors, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Dutch masters all contributed to his artistic expression.
His most brilliant and personal contribution to the history of French painting are his half-length figure pieces and the verve of his painterly handling, both exemplified in this endearing Portrait of a Young Lady. The core of his figure paintings are the group of fourteen men and women painted in the years 1767-1772 (eight in the Louvre, the others scattered). They were no doubt done from live models, thought only few of them represent known personages. All have instead the character of fantasy figures, not of commissioned portraits.
Also the Portrait of a Young Lady must depict a specific model, yet has the informality of a genre image. It shows the figure in a relaxed, supple pose, free of all rigidity, seated on a green chair. A white scarf is tied around her hair. The face and décolleté are set out in luminous, shinning hues, gently shaded along the left with a reddish glow and an ever so slight cooler, bluish area. Eyes and mouth are accentuated. The skin contrasts with the more subdued tonality of the rest. As always in Fragonard, the vivid, transparent brushwork remains visible, denser in the flesh tones, more summary in the surrounding parts. The lissom pose and immediacy of the handling result in the spontaneous presence of the figure. The mastery in the use of the light and shade leads ultimately back to Rubens as well as Rembrandt.
The portrait of a young woman is slightly smaller and less dynamic in its frontal pose than the series of fourteen figure paintings but on account of type and handling convincingly belongs to the same period; Wildenstein dates it to 1772, Cuzin to "1770-1772?", Rosenberg to c. 1772. The execution compares in particular with the Guimard portrait of the larger group (Louvre). The painting is also close to several smallish portraits of girls and young women from the same period such as Woman Reading a Letter, private collection, and Woman Writing a Letter, Cincinnati, but the quiet pose and the absence of any action or attribute such as a letter or a dog make this work a particularly serene example of Fragonard's art.
The painting shares the provenance with another image of the same size showing a young woman in half-figure, whose head is inclined. Consonant with a widespread, ancient practise, the two were plausibly conceived as a pair of comparable figures with same inner proportions but slightly contrasting poses. In the present work, the woman is seen just barely from the left whereas the companion piece is viewed somewhat from the right, with a tilted head, which gives it a more pensive mood. Beyond this complementary, the two works do not imply a significant duality of type or expression. Both heads have at times been identified with famous actresses of the period- this one with Mlle Duthé, a reputed ballet dancer of the Paris opera, or occasionally with Mlle Colombe (an actress whom he only knew in 1777), the pendant with Mlle Guimard, the most famous of dancers, but these identifications are not convincing.