Head of an Old Man
Grasse, 1732 - Paris, 1806
Circa 1765, oil on canvas, 53 x 42 cm
The old man is presented almost front on, the head turned to the right. The shirt, widely open, frees his neck. On all the surfaces of the face and neck, the painter uses the pictorial material to brilliant effect. The hollow cheeks, the speckled skin and the unruly beard are rendered in a thick paste, where every stroke of the brush is visible. Radiant tones animate this material.
In contrast, the coat and the cap play on the shades of grey. The bare background forms a sort of halo around the head, highlighting it.
Is this old man a character from a play, an imaginary person, or the extraordinary reflection of a real model? The art historians who hesitate to answer this question are also split on the sources of this image. Should we see the influence of the Dutch painters of the Grand Siècle, or on the contrary, that of the Italians, and more precisely, Tiepolo? If one sticks to this line of questioning, the exceptional mastery of the French painter does not need any explanation, it is strikingly evident …
However, this portrait is not unique among the works of Fragonard: he painted other studies of heads, as well as a famous group of “imaginary figures”. The predilection for this motif was particularly marked on his return from Rome at the beginning of the 1760s, when he prepared his painting to be received into the Academy.