French old master sets new record

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A major work by the 18th century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Portrait of François-Henri d’Harcourt, sold for £17 million at Bonhams, London yesterday (December 5) setting a world record price for the artist at auction.  The previous record was £5,300,000 for a painting sold in London in 1999. It is also the highest price for an Old Master Painting sold at auction anywhere in the world this year.

The painting was the leading work in the sale of paintings and sculpture from the renowned collection of the German philanthropist, the late Dr Gustav Rau, which raised more than £19 million.

Bonhams Director of Old Master Paintings, Andrew McKenzie, said: “The Portrait of François-Henri d’Harcourt is one of the paintings on which Fragonard’s reputation as an artistic genius rests. It is impossible to overstate its cultural and artistic significance. Handling this great painting for sale was a huge privilege and a landmark in the history of the art market.”

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) was a master of genre painting and a leading exponent of the Rococo style of which The Swing in the Wallace Collection in London is probably the best known example. In great demand as a portraitist in the dying days of the Ancien Regime, Fragonard fell on hard times after the French Revolution and although he continued to live in France he died in obscurity and poverty.

Fragonard’s fantasy portraits – often depicting friends and acquaintances – were painted quickly with bold, fluid brush work which anticipated the Impressionists in bravura and technique. This style was referred to by some contemporaries as the artist’s ‘swordplay of the brush’. The Portrait of François-Henri d’Harcourt is unusual among Fragonard’s fantasy portraits because the subject is identified. Many of the other portraits are personifications of the arts rather than representations of named individuals.

Among the other outstanding works in the sale were a 15th century depiction of the crucifixion by an unknown German artist, which sold for £1,082,500, and ‘Le grand noyer à l’Hermitage’ by Camille Pissarro, which sold for £314,500 against an estimate of £200,000-300,000.