Art and architecture critic

Jean Honoré Fragonard. "Portrait of a Man," c. 1769. (Musee du Louvre, Departement des Peintures/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY)

Fragonard’s "A Young Girl Reading," c. 1776 oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Art)

The faces on the walls of the National Gallery of Art's Jean-Honoré Fragonard exhibition are keenly aware that they are making an impression. Rendered with thick strokes of paint pulled with speed and élan, these "fantasy figures" have an innate theatricality. The great 18th-century French artist didn't just depict people being themselves, but enacting themselves, a bit like modern-day pundits come electrically alive as soon as the television cameras are turned on.

Fragonard's fantasy figures, a collection of portraits that seem to have been made quickly and with bravura expressive energy, remain a mystery, even after the discovery of a fascinating document unearthed at a 2012 auction in Paris. The faded piece of paper, titled "Sketches of Portraits," is covered with faded ink and graphite sketches that clearly reference 18 different fantasy figures (so called because of their fanciful costumes and enigmatic identities), and underneath the sketchy outlines are names or references that seem to tell us who these mysterious people are. Ten of the paintings seen on the newly discovered document are on view, and the exhibition grapples with the apparent identifications written in Fragonard's hand.

So now we know who these mysterious figures are? Not quite. In some cases Fragonard's names reference known people, including important figures within his social milieu. A dashing figure long known as "The Actor" is identified as "Godefroy jeune," which likely refers to a banker and art dealer who collected works by Fragonard. Sometimes Fragonard is bluntly phonetic in his spellings, so the letters "pro" may identify the subject of a painting known as "The Writer" as Louis Francois Prault ("pro" and "Prault" sound the same in French). But Fragonard's identifications don't always fit the image. A painting known as "The Warrior" depicts a saturnine male figure with lips pulled tightly over his teeth. It is identified as "hale" or "hall," which could mean Peter Adolphe Hall, a friend of the artist. But it doesn't look like other portraits of Hall.

In at least one case, Fragonard's labels feel a bit like theft. A portrait of a charismatic, balding man with a genial face and intelligent eyes has long been thought to represent the great philosophe Denis Diderot, who not only compiled the magisterial Encyclopedie, but also wrote with satirical and sometimes savage wit. But the scrawl beneath the ghostly ink rendering of the painting says only: Meunier. Curators posit that this is meant to be Ange Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon, a contemporary author and journalist. The painting is still identified as Diderot in other places, including Wikipedia, and if you love Diderot, this is the man you want Diderot to look like. Perhaps, though not likely, there is some elaborate play on the literal meaning of meunier as "miller," a mind that grinds fine?

Fragonard’s "The Warrior," c. 1769. (Michael Agee/Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute)

This is the first exhibition to gather a substantial number of the fantasy figures together after the 2012 discovery of the document identifying them, so it's an exhibition with scholarly importance. But it also is an engaging exhibition even without the discussion of the possible identities. The 10 fantasy figures known from the key are supplemented with four related works that aren't included in the document. They are arranged in a single room with the National Gallery's prize Fragonard — "Young Girl Reading" — holding court as the central image at the far end of the gallery. On one of the long walls, the center place is occupied by "Cavalier Seated by a Fountain," the largest of the works on view and the only one that suggests an outdoor setting.

For a general audience, even more compelling than the "who" of these paintings are the yet unresolved questions of why they were painted and for what purpose. Were they intended to be seen together, as a single installation? Were they part of Fragonard's efforts to brand himself as a master of quickly and deftly made virtuoso renderings? And what of the clothing the subjects wear, which in most cases is a form of fancy or theatrical dress known at the time as the Spanish style that was popular in France at the time?

Jean Honoré Fragonard. "Woman with a Dog," c. 1769. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY)

Likely, these works made use of costumes and props in Fragonard's studio. His favorite color, a sumptuous yellow, recurs in several of the dresses and coats worn by the men and women, as do elaborate collars and slit sleeves, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier age of high fashion. The costumes also may have been a leveling device, erasing the social and wealth distinctions between those who posed for the artist. But not all of the figures may have represented actual people. Some of them may have represented social archetypes or variations on figures gleaned from the work of other artists.

Even those that are confidently identified as actual subjects seem to be larger than life. In that sense, these paintings, mostly made in the late 1760s or shortly after, have a musical analogue, an exercise in aural portraiture from a half­century earlier by the great composer François Couperin. These short harpsichord pieces, often given enigmatic names that were more or less identifiable as references to real people, have the same bravura spirit as Fragonard's paintings, coy, confident, theatrical renderings of characters and character types. And the titles were often meant to evoke visual imagery: "I should add that the pieces they describe are types of portraits which have sometimes been judged quite lifelike when I performed them," the composer wrote in a preface to his sonic portrait collection. But Couperin was playfully vague about who or what these musical sketches represented: "I hope I may be excused from explaining them further."

What matters more than the identities of the people in these portraits — both those of Couperin and Fragonard — is the game of discovery and detection, like the thrill of a masked ball. Costumes aren't about hiding or altering identity, but rather revealing it. Some aspect of innate character is given full license, and hidden traits are disclosed. Couperin caught the truth in a matter of minutes in music. The Fragonard paintings, in some cases, were supposedly painted "in an hour," though that probably included significant retouching and refining after the sitting. But the intent seems similar: To produce a likeness that is artless and improvisatory, as if the subject wanted nothing more than to make an indelible first impression.

Fragonard: The Fantasy Figures is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Dec. 3. For more information visit