This is one of Jean-Honoré Fragonard's (1732-1806) famous ‘Figures de Fantaisie’ (fantasy figures), a series of quickly executed studies intended to showcase the artist’s skilled handling of oil paint. The unidentified sitter is portrayed in 'Spanish' dress, with a lace collar and slashed sleeves, suggesting the dramatic costume of the stage. There is a lively tension between realism and the lush materiality of paint – what at first appears to be a delicately painted face dissolves quickly into thick, loose brushstrokes. The striking textures of this painting – in the passages of richly worked paint and the canvas texture itself – have been uniquely preserved because the painting has remained unlined. Picture lining is the process whereby a lining material is adhered to the reverse of a canvas in order to stabilise and strengthen it for restoration purposes, a process which can affect the texture of a painting.
This painting was once thought to be by French artist Jean-Alexis Grimou (1678-1733) because his signature was found in the lower right. However, after close examination, it was revealed to be a false signature. Fragonard's genuine signature, ‘Frago’, is discernible above, although partially obscured by overpainting. It seems that Fragonard was paying a playful homage to a fellow artist who was well known in France at the time, particularly as a copyist. Most probably, Fragonard's intent was not to deceive, but rather to titillate connoisseurs with amusing visual ambiguity.