Four large canvases are at the heart of the cycle that since the nineteenth century has been known as The Progress of Love. These canvases were painted after 1771 by Jean-Honoré Fragonard for a room of the music pavilion near the chateau of Louveciennes, which belonged to Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s last mistress.
Du Barry, who was born Jeanne Bécu, came from a humble background and as a young woman was a housekeeper, a hairdresser, a shopkeeper, and a sex worker. Louis XV fell in love with her in 1768, gave her a title, and elevated her to the position of official royal mistress. The king, who died in 1774, spent the last five years of his life with Du Barry. Adored and despised by her contemporaries, Madame du Barry became an important patron of the arts in the twilight of the ancien régime. Among her remarkable enterprises was the renovation of the chateau at Louveciennes, just west of Paris, for which she commissioned a music pavilion designed by the prominent architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
For one of the pavilion’s room, Fragonard painted these four canvases. Here at Frick Madison, the canvases are bathed in natural light, as they would have been at Louveciennes. In two pairs facing each other, the paintings are displayed in the order in which they were shown at Louveciennes. We cannot recreate the relationship of the canvases in the room in the pavilion to the outside garden, but Breuer’s monumental window onto Madison Avenue evokes the window at Louveciennes looking out onto the Seine river and Paris.
Beginning on the right wall, by the window, and moving clockwise, is the playing out of four stages in an amorous relationship between a man and a woman. The couple advances from a flirtatious proposal (a young man springs forward to offer a rose to a girl) to a secretive meeting on a terrace on the right (the lover scales the wall of a garden) to marriage on the other side of the room (the girl crowns her lover with roses), and the peaceful enjoyment of a happy union (the reading of love letters under the statue of Friendship). Women dominate this cycle, and friendship is suggested as the climax of love.
Madame du Barry was a capricious patron. In 1773, she rejected Fragonard’s four paintings, eventually replacing them with works by Joseph-Marie Vien in the emerging neoclassical style. The reason for the rejection is unknown. It may have been for stylistic reasons or for how much of her own story she could read, or knew others would read, in the canvases. Fragonard kept the four paintings—likely rolled up—for the next twenty years.
After the death of Louis XV, Du Barry was sent to a nunnery but released a year later. She lived at Louveciennes until the onset of the Reign of Terror, when she was arrested and beheaded on the Place de la Revolution (today, Place de la Concorde). The painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who portrayed Du Barry a number of times, vividly described her last moments: “She was the only woman,” she said, “among all who perished in those dreadful days, unable to face the scaffold with firmness; she screamed, she sued for pardon to the hideous mob surrounding her, and that mob became moved to such a degree that the executioner hastened to finish his task. This has always confirmed my belief that if the victims of that period of execrable memory had not had the noble pride of dying with fortitude the Terror would have ceased long before it did.”