Text by Deanna MacDonald
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What could American robber barons Henry Clay Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan and famed courtesan Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, all have in common? Why, their taste in art, of course.
Around 1771, Madame du Barry commissioned celebrated Rococo artist Fragonard to create a decorative cycle for a new pavilion in the garden of her château at Louveciennes. However, when the four canvases of The Progress of Love were delivered the following year, she rejected them in favour of another series in the new ‘antique’ style by Joseph-Marie Vien. Fragonard ended up keeping the paintings until 1790, when he retired for a year to his native town of Grasse and installed them there in a cousin’s house.
Fast forward a century or so and the cycle was purchased first by Morgan for his London home and after Morgan died in 1913, Frick acquired it for a whopping $750,000. He then paid over a million more to create the perfect Rococo drawing room for them in his Fifth Avenue home, where they remain today.
The cycle, set in lush gardens full of mythological statuary, follows two lovers through various facets of romance: The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and Love Letters. The concept borrows from the tradition of Watteau’s fêtes galantes and from the pastoral paintings of François Boucher (with whom Fragonard once worked). But it is Fragonard’s fluid style full of the exuberance and curiosity of the French Enlightenment that makes this cycle one of the outstanding achievements of 18th-century French decorative painting.
In this image, the lovers – an earnest young man climbing up a ladder and a willowy girl with flowers in her hair and plunging décolletage – meet, presumably in secret. Their somewhat exaggerated poses are clearly inspired by contemporary theatre and ballet; both look off-stage, so to speak, as if fearful they will be found out. Fragonard builds this dramatic tension in a painterly love triangle formed by the couple and the statue of Venus taking Cupid’s quiver of arrows that towers above them. Critics have made much of the upward thrust of the trees – is the couple’s desire so evident that even the trees appear aroused? Perhaps the way the trees split behind the statue is intended to let the viewer know that the resolution of their love is not yet sure? However by the next panel, The Lover Crowned, their union is certain.
Despite its somewhat staged nature, the scene is spontaneous and sweet without being saccharine. Like the best of Fragonard’s work, the painting is playful yet sincere, filled with erotic possibilities. These rustic protagonists in billowing silks have nothing to do with realism or classical rigour but embody the carefree pastoral charm of the Rococo and pre-Revolutionary French art.
Why did Madame du Barry reject such a delightful cycle? Was the earnest lover too indiscreet an allusion to her own, Louis XV? Some have suggested the paintings simply didn’t fit in the room for which they were intended. Or perhaps Fragonard’s Rococo exuberance didn’t match the cool Neo-Classical design of her new pavilion by innovatory architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux? In fact, by the 1770s the heyday of the Rococo was over. After the Revolution (in which Madame du Barry lost her head), Fragonard tried to remake his style to fit the new Neo-Classical taste but without success; he died almost forgotten in 1806.
1773 Angelica Kauffmann: Lord John Simpson, Vienna, Belvedere
1773 John Singleton Copley: Mrs John Winthrop, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art