"Ode to a Lost World
Jean-Honoré Fragonard's 'The Progress of Love' cycle
Only those who lived before the French Revolution could understand the sweetness of living, declared Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, the wily statesman who managed to play a decisive role in virtually every French government from the ancien régime to the early 1830s.
Few works testify more powerfully to the elegance, sensuousness and delicate beauty of that lost world than "The Progress of Love," the panels created by Jean-Honoré Fragonard for Mme du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV.
Fragonard was born in Grasse, in the south of France, in 1732. When he was a child his father, a glove maker, moved the family to Paris, where the boy studied with two of the greatest painters of the early 18th century, Chardin and Boucher. He enjoyed early success. When he was 20 he won the Prix de Rome, which enabled him to study in Italy. At the age of 23 a historical painting of his was acquired by Louis XV, which entitled him to the honorary title, Painter to the King.
In 1769 the king, known during his reign as Louis the Beloved, made du Barry a gift of a chateau in Louveciennes, on the Seine northwest of Paris. The building itself dated from the previous century. In keeping with her reputation as a trendsetter, du Barry commissioned the fashionable architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to create a neighboring pavilion in a more contemporary style for the express purpose of entertaining the king. And Fragonard was commissioned to decorate the room adjoining the dining room in that pavilion. He painted four wall-size oil-on-canvas panels.
Two scenes are of pursuit. In one the young woman being pursued is leaping over a short wall, the billows of her gown suggesting considerable anxiety.
The other two panels depict the tranquility of love acknowledged. In "The Lover Crowned," the woman who was pursued places a floral crown on the head of her pursuer. Their little drama is being painted by an artist, who has presumably posed them.
The panels were painted on site, and fashionable Paris drove to Louveciennes to see the work being done. "But not everybody gets in," an observer wrote in 1772. "It is only through special favors that one may penetrate this sanctuary of voluptuousness."
These four panels were then rejected by du Barry. (There is evidence that she paid Fragonard for them and graciously allowed him to keep them.) The reasons for this rejection have never been fully determined. The most widely accepted explanation is that du Barry, ever the creature of fashion, recognized that by the early '70s they were vieux jeu, or old-fashioned. The playfulness of the rococo had given way to the comparative seriousness of neoclassicism.
In retrospect this rejection may have been a blessing -- for us. Du Barry was arrested at Louveciennes in 1793 and shortly afterward sent to the guillotine. Who knows what the revolutionary mob might have done if they had seen the Fragonards, so emblematic of the regime they were eradicating?
By then the panels were in the house of Fragonard's cousin, Alexandre Maubert, in Grasse. Fragonard had returned there in ill health in 1790 and lived with his cousin. He painted other panels to enhance the original set. Fragonard died in his cousin's house in 1806, impoverished and largely forgotten. Only late in the 19th century did his reputation begin to be resuscitated. In 1898 there was a movement to transfer the panels to the Louvre.
Instead, that year Maubert's grandson sold them to the English dealer Wertheimer, who in turn sold them to J.P. Morgan. Morgan built a room for them in his London mansion. Their first public display was at the Metropolitan Museum in 1914 in a tribute to Morgan shortly after he died. Morgan had been the president of the Metropolitan as well as a munificent benefactor.
Among the visitors to that exhibit was steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, who was busy amassing his own art collection. His interest in the Fragonards was noted by the consummate dealer Joseph Duveen, who bought them for $1 million. Shortly afterward he sold them to Frick for $1.2 million, which he considered "cost." Duveen's intention was to make a heftier profit on all the other objects he would sell Frick for his new mansion on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street. He did.
The Fragonard panels would again have their own room, but unlike the one for which they were designed at Louveciennes, the gallery in the Frick did not have curved walls. And because of the need to accommodate the additional Grasse panels, the original four do not follow the same narrative progression as they did at Louveciennes.
Handsomely restored a few years ago, the panels present some problems of interpretation. The woman alone, for example -- is her solitary situation the sequel of the drama of pursuit? Or is it the prequel? In "The Lover Crowned," why is the pursuer looking adoringly at his beloved while she, positioning the wreath accurately enough, is looking off into space, not even at the artist? It does not suggest a proper reward for her lover's intense chase or his unmistakable devotion.
In several of the panels there is statuary that, we assume, must be a comment on the action below. In this case the statue is of Cupid, who, far from encouraging the pair or even beaming at his achievement, is simply asleep.
By our standards the human figures seem highly stylized, though the young man is never less than totally ardent as he pursues his quarry. Her expression as she tries to elude him reflects anxiety. Only in the final panel, in which she sits on a pedestal, looking modestly downward as he rests his head on her shoulder, do we sense contentment. In this panel the accompanying statue seems to be that of a matron and child, suggesting cozy domesticity ahead.
It is difficult to see why contemporaries, visiting Louveciennes during the creation of these works, saw in the portraits of elegantly, chastely dressed figures a "sanctuary of voluptuousness." But these figures only occupy the bottom third of each panel. Above them are huge trees whose unusual, abstract shapes have a sensual fullness that could indeed be described as voluptuous. Also, the palette is unmistakably Fragonard's -- the colors have a freshness that intensifies the sensual quality of the images.
I first "discovered" the Fragonards as a student in the early '60s. It was around the time I was also "discovering" Mozart. My idea of Paradise was to sit in this room in the Frick, listening to "Cosi fan Tutte" -- another work only conceivable in an aristocratic world, in which sensuality can be discovered beneath a brittle, seemingly artificial surface.
Fragonard's masterworks are comparably dazzling. Time has given them a poignancy as well, since we know how brutally the world they reflected was destroyed.
Mr. Kissel, former drama critic of the New York Daily News, blogs on cultural matters at nydailynews.com."