Jean Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris), Sappho inspired by Cupid, oil on canvas, oval, 63 x 54.8cm (24 13/16 x 21 9/16in). Estimate £800,000 - 1.2 million (€1 million - 1.5 million). Photo Bonhams.

Provenance (Possibly) Sale (Vente Gorman or Lacaille), Paris, 23 January 1792, lot 68 ('Un tableau, représentant une muse inspirée par l'Amour. Cette composition agréable est d'un beau coloris.... h.24p.; l.20p. Il est forme ovale. Toile.')
(Possibly) Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 27 January 1845, lot 75 (without dimensions)
Adolphe Fould, Paris
Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 14-15 May 1875, lot 13
Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 8 May 1891, lot 32
Baron Alphonse de Rothschild
Baron Maurice de Rothschild, by 1921
Alfred Loewenstein, Brussels
Comte Boger van der Straten Ponthoz, Brussels
With Wildenstein, New York, by 1960, from whom acquired by the
Baron and Baroness Enrico di Portanova on 27 April 1981
Sale, Christie's, New York, 2 November 2000, lot 1998
Private Collection, UK

Literature: P. de Nohlac, J.H. Fragonard, 1732-1806, Paris, 1906, p. 160 (where the present lot is confused with the lost painting formerly in the Véri collection)
G. Wildenstein, The Paintings of Fragonard, London, 1960, p. 293, no. 425, fig. 181
J. Cailleux, 'Fragonard as Painter of the Colombe Sisters', The Burlington Magazine, September 1960, p. V (advert. supp.), pl. 6 (detail)
D. Wildenstein and G. Mandel, L'Opera completa di Fragonard, Milan, 1972, p. 105, no. 448, ill.
J.-P. Cuzin, Fragonard: Life and Work, New York, 1988, p. 328, no. 356, ill.
P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard, Paris, 1989, no. 390, ill.

Exhibited: Paris, Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Pavillion de Marsona, Palais du Louvre, Exposition Fragonard, 1921, no. 62, ill. (catalogue by G. Wildenstein)
Bern, Kunstmuseum, Fragonard, 1954, no. 41 (catalogue by F. Daulte)
Paris, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, De Watteau à Prud'hon, 1956, no. 40
Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, and Kyoto, Municipal Museum, Fragonard, 1980, no. 68, ill. (catalogue by D. Sutton)

The present painting has been known informally as the Portanova Sappho to recognise its previous ownership by the socialite couple, Sandra and Ricky di Portanova and to distinguish it from Fragonard's other works on the same theme. Such was the success of the composition that Fragonard repeated it several times, the Portanova Sappho being the best preserved of these. It was also engraved and often copied.

One other version, formerly in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection (Cuzin, op. cit., no. 355; offered for sale at Sotheby's, London, 16 December 1999, lot 75), is so similar in size and format as to make it impossible to assign references in 18th-century sales catalogues to that or the present version with any certainty. A third version (ibid., no. 357) is known only from poor photographs, but looks weaker than the others and may be an old copy. A small sketch of the subject en grisaille formerly in the collection of Eudoxe Marcille came to light about 15 years ago in a private collection in Europe (ibid., no. 358), but the version that was engraved by Angelique Papavoine in 1788 has been lost since 1808; it was first recorded in the collection of the Marquis de Véri (sale, Paris, 12 December 1785, lot 38). Both the inscription on the engraving (ibid., no. L10) and the catalogue of Véri's sale are specific in identifying the subject of the painting as Sappho, but both print and painting included one small detail absent from all of the surviving versions of the composition: Cupid hands Sappho one of his arrows with which to record his inspiring words. An earlier genre painting by Fragonard, now lost, was engraved in 1777 under the title The Favorable Inspiration (ibid., no. L6); it is almost identical in composition to Sappho inspired by Cupid, except the poetess is depicted in contemporary dress, holding a quill.

Both Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Pierre Rosenberg have dated the Portanova Sappho to circa 1780, when the painter moved away from the Rococo style with which he had established his early reputation and started to experiment with Neoclassicism. Among the other paintings from this period are The Dream of Plutarch (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen; Cuzin, op. cit., no. 361), and the allegories with romantic themes that are among the artist's greatest late works. Sappho inspired by Cupid clearly struck a chord with art collectors because Fragonard repeated the composition many times, as was the case with these other allegories: The Invocation to Love, The Fountain of Love and The Sacrifice of the Rose, for example. Fragonard's smoky, nocturnal sensuality inspired some of the more innovative artists of the next generation, including Prud'hon and Girodet, and as such he was a precursor of early 19th-century Romanticism. While being familiar with the art and culture of the classical past, Fragonard nonetheless infused his interpretation of the Antique with an immediate and modern vitality.

This image of Love inspiring Art depicts Cupid whispering words of guidance into the ear of Sappho (born circa 600 B.C.), the beautiful poetess from the isle of Lesbos, who was celebrated for the fervour and freedom of her passions as much as for the nine books of lyrical verse that she composed. Only two fragments of her poetry have survived, but their elegance and originality have been deemed to justify the praise of the ancients - Horace among them - who so highly regarded her genius that she was dubbed 'the tenth Muse'.

Bonhams. OLD MASTER PAINTINGS. London, New Bond Street, 9 Jul 2014 - http://www.bonhams.com