This stunning portrait may not have the fame of Fragonard's most well known artwork, The Swing, but for many it is actually his finest painting. The brushstrokes are loose, expressive in a way that had not really been seen during 18th century French art. He was a master of the folds of cloth, and we find these elements of drapery within the young woman's elaborate dress. The right and lower sides are darkened to produce a touch of lighting from the opposite direction but this is still one of the artist's simpler portraits. The colour scheme makes use of a number of yellow or mustard tones as well as browns, purple reds and whites in order to construct the dominant outfit and also to leave a fairly subdued background behind this beautiful model. She also has a bow in her hair in a pruple which continues into the pillows on which she rests as well as another touch to the front of her dress. Although bright and uplifting, the pallette used in this painting is actually relatively confined.
Traditional art would often attempt to capture moments of leisure but during these times there were many fewer options available, even for the rich and famous. As such, reading was a popular activity for artists to capture, partly because of the frequency with which it was undertaken, but also the atmosphere that it could create, with immediate assumptions of calming peace and also a strong intelligence and class of the subject. Indeed, for those who commissioned Fragonard to produce portraits of themselves, it would make absolute sense to ask to be portrayed in a pose such as this. Reputations could be significantly boosted by a charming portrait and so the richer members of French society would often seek out the most respected portrait painters of their era. Even the most famous and respected artists, over the last few centuries, have had to struggle with the balance of being financially comfortable, whilst also retaining an element of independence on their own creativity.
The painting can be found at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., United States where it has resided since 1961 after a financial intervention by members of the Mellon family who have a long history of involvement in the arts. This item is dated at circa 1770 and many of his paintings have loose dates, perhaps not surprising considering how he starred as early as the late 18th century and that his career did not receive as much focus as others until fairly recently. This has changed now, though, and this particular artwork was actually x-rayed by the owner in order to establish further information about its development. This was a worthy process, with an alternative pose of the woman discovered, where her face was angled much more towards the viewer. It would have taken quite some time to have amended this to get the angle that we ended up with.