“Young Girl Reading” by Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)

Last week, the Speed Art Museum unveiled its latest masterpiece, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — French painter Jean Honoré Fragonard’s “Young Girl Reading.”

The painting was completed around 1769 in Fragonard’s signature Rococo style, which is a highly ornate and decorative style popular in France during the reign of Louis XV (1715-74).

“This painting is one of the most beloved works in the National Gallery of Art’s collection,” said Yuriko Jackall, National Gallery’s specialist of 18th-century French paintings, in a news release. “It doesn’t leave the National Gallery often, so this is a rare opportunity for the Speed to showcase this painting to the public.”

Erika Holmquist-Wall, chief curator of the Speed, said the museum is extremely fortunate to have the painting on display, and it’s a treasure that should really be seen in person. It’ll only be at the Speed through May 15.

“The Speed is thrilled to showcase this important and beautiful masterpiece,” she said. “Fragonard was consistently among the most innovative and brilliant painters of his time. He was interested in the world as a setting for imagined pleasures, as were his clients, who were mostly private financiers and aristocrats.”

In 1769, Fragonard began to paint a series of portraits that art historians now call “Fantasy Figures.” Each featured individual models in fancy dress engaged in different poses and activities, however “Young Girl Reading” was slightly different in that the model was reading a book instead of gazing directly at the viewer or off into the distance.

“An intriguing note to this painting is that in 2012, researchers discovered a previously unknown drawing by Fragonard that included sketches of 18 paintings related to the ‘Fantasy Figures,’ including a sketch corresponding to ‘Young Girl Reading,’ ” explained Holmquist-Wall. “In fact, an earlier X-ray of ‘Young Girl Reading’ revealed that Fragonard had painted the head of the girl over another portrait, but it was impossible to determine the details.”

An X-ray of a painting?

Turns out in 2013, National Gallery’s Jackall and a team of researchers used hyperspectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence imaging techniques to unearth previous sketches below the surface. What they found was a sketch of a different model who was wearing a large feathered headdress, likely painted six months before Fragonard changed course and decided to paint the woman reading a book.

Holmquist-Wall said the research team was able to recreate a digital simulation of the first portrait.

Another example of Jean Honoré Fragonard’s work, “The Stolen Kiss”

But, whatever exists below the surface, Fragonard changed course and painted a true masterpiece that inspired many after him.

“Visually, ‘Young Girl Reading’ is a beautiful painting, highlighting tremendous freedom of brushwork and coloring that it sets Fragonard up as a precursor to the Impressionists,” said Jackall. “Fragonard was a model for those artists who came after him, and I hope the loan will introduce new audiences to 18th-century French art.”

“Young Girl Reading” will be on display through May 15. If you stop in to check it out, note that the Speed’s next exhibit, “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism,” which features more than 80 pieces by 37 women artists from 13 countries, opens Saturday, Feb. 17.

The Speed is located at 2035 S. Third St. Admission is free on Sundays.

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."