Fragonard’s reputation never fully recovered from the setback of Madame du Barry’s rejection of his four canvases for Louveciennes. He left France for Italy, and then, in 1790–91—at the start of the French Revolution—he went to Grasse, his birthplace in Provence, in the south of France. There, he rented the villa of his cousins, the Maubert family, just outside the main entrance to the town.
In the main salon of Villa Maubert, Fragonard installed the four canvases that he had painted for Du Barry twenty years earlier, along with ten more that he painted to complete the decoration of the room. These additional ten canvases are on display here, separated, for the first time, from the four canvases painted for Madame du Barry. In these ten canvases, color is more freely and sketchily applied and generally lighter and softer.
The new set of ten paintings included four personifications of different kinds of love as overdoors, and a large canvas, Love Triumphant, that was installed over the room’s fireplace. An even larger canvas shows a woman resting against a column, her hair disheveled. This painting has often been interpreted as a reflection on the tragic destiny of Madame du Barry. The column is a sundial, the arm of a stone cupid indicating, with its shadow, that it is midday, the hour traditionally associated in eighteenth-century France with the loves of shepherds. Rather than abandoned by her lover, this woman is caught in an amorous reverie, in preparation for, or as a consequence of, her meeting with him.
For the corners of the villa’s salon, Fragonard painted four canvases that once again signal the continuity between exterior and interior. Rendered almost abstract are clusters of hollyhocks behind a wooden trellis. Fragonard’s last major paintings can almost be seen as precursors of the Barbizon School and of Impressionism.
In 1898, the fourteen canvases of the cycle at Grasse were sold to John Pierpont Morgan, who had them installed in his home at Princes Gate in London. Later shipped to the United States, the cycle was sold by Morgan’s son to Henry Clay Frick in 1915. Frick had the canvases installed in in the drawing room of his mansion. In order to fit in the space, however, the canvases had to be installed in the wrong order. Moreover, three of the hollyhocks canvases did not fit at all and were relegated to storage.
The complete cycle of fourteen canvases is exhibited here for the first time in more than a century. Together, they tell the rich story of this important commission and reveal the way in which Fragonard’s style developed from pre- to post-revolutionary times. The cycle is the masterpiece of one of the most inventive painters in eighteenth-century France, an artist who famously is alleged to have boasted: “I would paint with my ass.”