This is one of Fragonard's famous Figures de Fantaisie (Fantasy Figures), a series of quickly executed studies intended to showcase the artist’s virtuoso 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. It was Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) who inspired the depiction of Spanish dress in eighteenth-century French art; similarities can be drawn between this painting and one by Velázquez at the Wallace Collection, London, The Lady with a Fan (c. 1640).
There is a lively tension here between realism and the lush materiality of paint. The delicately painted face dissolves into thick, loose brushstrokes. The painting has remained unlined, which has preserved the bold impasto.
Once thought to be by French artist Jean-Alexis Grimou (1678-1733) on the strength of his signature, closer examination revealed that this signature, on the lower right, was false. 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. Grimou is known to have copied The Infant Christ as the Good Shepherd by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), a similar French copy of which can be seen in Dulwich Picture Gallery's collection (DPG272). Most probably, Fragonard's intent was not to deceive, but rather to titillate connoisseurs with amusing visual ambiguity.
This painting is currently being displayed alongside a newly created replica as part of Made in China: A Doug Fishbone Project