Born in Grasse, France, in 1732, Fragonard was a prolific Rococo painter, printmaker, and draftsman who is perhaps best known today for his elaborate work gallant party, or representations of revelers in pastoral settings. Several years after receiving the Prix de Rome, the artist traveled to Italy, where he studied at the French Academy in Rome from 1756 to 1761 before returning to Paris. The Palette Game and La Bascule, both painted circa 1761 to 1765, were inspired by his stay in Rome – particularly in the verdant Villa d’Este in Tivoli – and influenced by his studies of Italian painting.
Both compositions depict revelers playing among open-air ruins in sprawling bucolic idylls, with great emphasis on landscape. In “La Bascule”, the revelers, including a baby cherub, ride a makeshift swing. “The Palette Game” depicts a group of young people playing a game in which the winner, who has located a hidden object, hits the loser with a wooden paddle. All the paintings belonged to Pierre Jacques Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt, Receiver General of Finances in Montauban. An amateur artist himself, the Receiver General was a committed patron who traveled to Italy with Fragonard from 1773 to 1774. In 1786, after the death of Bergeret de Grancourt, the paintings were sold at auction in Paris and then disappeared from the register. Research now indicates that they were purchased by an art dealer and subsequently entered the collection of Nicolas d’Orglandes, MP and peer of France.
“La Bascule” and “Le Jeu de la Palette” resurfaced in the summer of 2016 when Thaddée Prate, specialist in the French auction house Tajan, was taking an inventory of a castle in Normandy. Prate identified the two paintings, which hung six feet above the floor in a crowded 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, estimated together at around six million euros (roughly $ 7 million), they found themselves blocked by the National Treasures Advisory Commission. Once the paintings were officially classified as national treasures in May 2017, the French state had 30 months to raise the necessary funds for their acquisition. Between state aid via the Heritage Fund, financing of the Louvre, corporate sponsorship and additional tax measures, the money was cobbled together.
The Musée Fabre, classified as an official museum of France since 2002, has a sustained acquisition policy: the collection was enriched this year with an 18th century still life by Dominique Joseph Van der Burch and a 19th century painting. Adolphe Leleux. . The decision to transfer Fragonard’s paintings to the institution in Montpellier is linked to an effort by the French state to decentralize its Parisian art collections in a gesture of support for regional museums. A press release from the 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, issued a statement thanking the French Ministry of Culture, the Louvre and the additional patrons who made possible what he called an “unprecedented” acquisition. Delafosse continues:
“The arrival of these two works by Fragonard in the museum’s collections is a real gift, at a time when the public is gradually finding its way back to cultural institutions. It also testifies to the State’s desire to share its heritage with the whole of France. This arrival is a happy event for the museum, for Culture, for Montpellier.
The paintings will be on display in an exhibition at the museum from December 16, 2021 to March 6, 2022.