Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl with a Cat, circa 1770Back
What should we call this cute little animal? Is it a cat, as the picture’s title suggests? The strikingly round head puts one in mind of a little bear, or perhaps a dog or a stuffed animal. The small animal does not really resemble a cat. A hybrid being, it suggests various associations. We are drawn to its big, inky-blue eyes, which stand out in an especially plastic way thanks to their white highlights. The red lips are like those of a small child. Regardless of these mixed signals, this being captivates us owing to its lovable, fluffy aura. Significantly, its fur is white, the color of innocence.
The young woman naturally takes up most of the picture, but our attention constantly returns to her quiet and intense connection with the lovable little creature. How might the relationship between the two of them have come to be? What is her reason for lifting it off the ground, in order to hold it lovingly in her arms? In the picture, we see no attributes or other motifs in the background to suggest any particular story, as one so often finds in pictures from the rococo epoch. At the end of the eighteenth century, feudalism in Europe entered a phase of decline, ending with the French Revolution in 1789. Fragonard’s picture was painted around twenty years previously. The woman’s striking nakedness— she is showing a bare breast as she turns toward the little animal—was not unusual in this epoch and signified a depiction of the erotic, as pictured and rendered in paintings by the nobility of the time. Sport, dances, and games of hide and seek in Arcadian nature, far from the inflexible ceremonies of court, were a diversion and a source of release.
The painting originally had an oval format and was somewhat larger. At the unknown point in time when it was reduced down to a rectangular format, it was plainly also retouched, especially the animal. Between 1988 and 1990, the undesirable overpainting was reversed, returning the painting to its original state. This in turn means that the Browns saw a somewhat different picture when they purchased it in the Galerie Wildenstein in 1919. Astonishingly, the collection’s history reveals that Sidney and Jenny Brown sold no fewer than eight Impressionist pictures (including a number of works by Cézanne and Renoir) in order to acquire this picture by Fragonard! They must have cared about it considerably: from today’s perspective, this trade-off was not economically wise. However, it is precisely in such decisions that the freedom of collectors lies: they operate independently and do not have to justify their decisions. In this, they are quite different from public museums, whose collecting activities take place in the framework of a clearly defined concept and must be constantly and painstakingly researched and justified.
Markus Stegmann in: «Herzkammer», Museum Langmatt 2020