On Oct. 18, Artdaily.org reported “groundbreaking research” at the National Gallery of Art in DC, but the outcome of the study doesn’t live up to its billing. Identifying the gender of a figure painted underneath “Young Girl Reading” by 18th-century artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard falls short of trailblazing. An X-ray in 1984 had suggested a male. Now a 3-person research team, using technology similar to a NASA probe on Mars, indicates a female. Michael Swicklik, senior conservator at the National Gallery, called the new-found sexual identity “very exciting.”

But he and his colleagues failed to notice something his research that is more far-reaching.

Behavior modification

The figure in the under-painting resembles the one on the surface, except instead of reading a book, she gazes out at the viewer, at us, as if to ask, “What are you looking at?” Talk about “groundbreaking.” Fragonard pictured something rarely, if ever, seen in painting before his time—a woman who doesn’t passively permit us to peer at her as females throughout art history were given to do.

Fragonard’s female is like the one painted nearly a century later in Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” who stares out in our direction, demanding an explanation for our stare. Emperor Napoleon III saw the painting as “indecent.” Granted, she is nude, but given all the undressed women in art history, nudity couldn’t have been the reason for his squawk.

My guess is that it was her ogling him as he ogled her. Female reticence was AWOL.

Cautionary tale

Goya’s “Naked Maja” showed the same moxie. She watches whoever watches her. The Spanish Inquisition balked at the work, likely owing to her lack of reserve. And again, Fragonard’s portrayal of female self-awareness was ahead of his time, beating Goya by 30 years.

The National Gallery researchers made a discovery without noticing it.

Yes, we can

Another member of the research team, John Delaney, senior imaging scientist, showed an unawareness of art history when he wondered out loud to the press about the difference between the pose in the under-painting and the final one: "Why did Fragonard make a change like this?

Was this because the model rejected the painting and so the painting remained unsold? Was it that the initial painting was almost like a figure study? We are not totally sure."

Oh, but we are sure.

Making history

Pierre-Jean Mariette, an art historian writing in the first half of the 18th century, described Fragonard’s early creative process as timid, saying that he was never content with what he produced and “continually wiped things out and revised.” Mariette worried that the artist’s unsure hand might keep him from succeeding: “I shall be sorry if this is the case; the effort he makes to do well merit great success.”

In all probability, no one before now had ever seen the original look of Fragonard's “Young Girl Reading.” Thanks to the National Gallery we now can. Too bad the researchers’ take-away was so narrow.