The Rejection of a Masterpiece Part 1

Figure 1: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Progress of Love, c. 1771-1773. 

This is part 1 of a two part discussion on Fragonard’s Progress of Love. I loved writing and researching this paper even though it is not a Renaissance work. I hope you guys enjoy it too!


Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Progress of Love (1771-73, Figure 1) was a major, ambitious decorative cycle whose subject is puzzling and its rejection even more so. Painted from 1771 to 1773, the series emerged at the height of his career for an extremely prestigious patron, Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress.[1] And yet, the cycle was not well received, quite the opposite in fact. Du Barry returned the works and replaced them almost immediately.[2] It has previously been argued that she did so because the cycle was too expensive or because she did not like the Rococo style it was painted in.[3] And yet, the style and theme of the series could not have been a surprise as it fits seamlessly within Fragonard’s oeuvre at the time and du Barry handpicked him after purchasing some of his overdoor hangs.[4] I argue instead that she rejected the cycle because of the lack of symbolism regarding her relationship to the king. By studying the collecting habits of Madame du Barry, Fragonard’s artistic style, and the socio-historical context, a clearer understanding of this rejection can be uncovered that does not simply dismiss the cycle as too sensuous or expensive.[5]

Figure 2: Joseph-Marie Vien, Progress of Love: Lover Crowning his Mistress and Greek Maidens Adorning a Sleeping Cupid with Flowers, 1773. 

While Fragonard has been frequently discussed by historians, his connection with Madame du Barry is briefly, if ever, mentioned. Scholars normally mention her rejection of Progress of Love before quickly moving on with no discussion or explanation of the event. Instead, the focus of scholarship regarding the series is normally centered on determining what the implied narrative and themes are and in what order the works were meant to be viewed.[6] In this paper, I am examining primary sources regarding Fragonard and du Barry in addition to scholarly discussions of both to understand why du Barry rejected this work when she already owned works by Fragonard and paid Joseph-Marie Vien to quickly replace it with his own cycle entitled The Progress of Love in the Hearts of Young Girls (1773, Figure 2).[7] In comparison to her relative contemporaries, Madame du Pompadour and Marie Antoinette, Madame du Barry has not received adequate scholarly attention to fully understand her broad and sometimes controversial art patronage. 

Figure 3: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Pursuit, c. 1771.

When Progress of Love has been examined in the past, it is either examined as part of a monographic study within the context of Fragonard’s oeuvre or briefly mentioned in reviews of Madame du Barry’s patronage. As can be seen in publications by Dore Ashton, Thomas Kavanagh, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Mary Sheriff, and Jacques Thuillier, the study of the cycle features a brief formal analysis, mentions of du Barry as patron, and then a focus on Progress of Love as an example of the Rococo style. As there is little confirmed documentation regarding this cycle, apart from visual analysis, everything else is conjecture. Surprisingly though, authors normally fail to combine these aspects in their argument and most refuse to take a clear stance on why du Barry would have declined these paintings upon their completion. Scholars skirt around the problematic nature of this commission by avoiding it completely or by addressing it without providing a definitive explanation.[8] The purpose of this paper is to build on the existing scholarship regarding Fragonard’s oeuvre and Madame du Barry’s patronage by discussing and concluding why du Barry declined this specific commission at such an important time in her life as Louis XV’s mistress. 

Figure 4: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Meeting (The urprise), c. 1771-1773.

Progress of Love includes four separate, large scale panels: The Pursuit (Figure 3), The Surprise (Figure 4), The Lover Crowned (Figure 5), and Love and Friendship (Figure 6). The cycle is divided into two groups- one showing the early phases of courtship (The Pursuit and The Surprise) and the other showing a deeper, committed relationship (The Lover Crowned and Love and Friendship).[9] While assumed to create a coherent narrative, there is no clear transition or connection between the four and the order in which they were meant to be displayed has been debated.[10] All four depict a girl and a boy in various amorous situations in an overgrown landscape. The only clear narrative descriptions for the individual works and the cycle as a whole come from their titles. The works themselves actually deny the existence of a cohesive narrative as the figures vary in appearance, age, and clothing from panel to panel.[11] Although typical of Fragonard’s style, the subject matter for the series was stipulated by Madame du Barry in her initial commission to Fragonard, “four large paintings of M. Fragonard which deal with the loves of the shepherds and seem to involve allegories on the affairs of the mistress of the house.”[12] Additionally, in comparison to some of his other works, Progress of Love is not as outwardly sensuous, and some of the iconography, especially in Love and Friendship, is even more indicative of a platonic versus romantic relationship.[13] In many of the scenes, the couples are not even alone, but accompanied by another figure observing them. As Mary Sheriff points out, “In the Louveciennes panels the erotic, sexual elements are decidedly present but remain relatively controlled and cover…in The Progress art is the dominant force that controls both love and nature.”[14] Donald Posner reaffirms this lack of eroticism when he discusses how some interpretations of the series lead to a moralizing tale where romantic relationships do not last, but friendship does instead of an erotic tale of love.[15]

Figure 5: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Lover Crowned, c. 1771-1773.

Madame du Barry was not from the wealthy and cultured aristocracy. She was born out of wedlock to a poor mother, but she used her beauty and her charm to climb the French social ladder.[16] She gradually integrated herself into higher levels of society until she was finally introduced to the king. Louis XV’s most famous mistress, Madame du Pompadour had already died and Louis’ wife would die relatively soon after their introduction.[17] Du Barry became his official mistress on Monday April 23, 1769.[18] Although by this time, she had already been Louis’ unofficial mistress and present at court, her status as the official royal mistress allowed Louis to openly give her gifts, such as her pleasure palace Louveciennes, and also provided her with a large allowance.[19] In 1771, du Barry’s monthly allowance was 300,000 livres that she could spend in any way, which she did.[20] She “indulged in every extravagant whim” to the point that she was always in debt.[21] One of the main explanations by scholars for why this cycle was rejected was that it was too expensive, not that the price was too high as she clearly had no qualms about spending her allowance. But rather that du Barry was in so much debt, she could not afford the works. However, despite rejecting the works, she still paid Fragonard 18,000 livres and then, she had to pay Vien for his own commission when he completed his series.[22]Therefore, it seems unlikely that du Barry rejected the works based on monetary concerns. Additionally, Madame du Barry was at the height of her social power in 1772 and 1773 when she was essentially ruling the French court.[23] It is at this time when she spent the most money despite her already existing debt. Building off of the precedent of the previous mistress, Madame du Pompadour, du Barry would not have let something like debt prevent her from purchasing something she wanted.[24]

Figure 6: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Love Letters (Love and Friendship), 1771-1773. 

[1] Du Barry was not Louis’ first mistress, but his last one after the death of Madame du Pompadour and his wife. 

[2] Dore Ashton, Fragonard in the Universe of Painting (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988): 152. 

[3] Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, “Genre and Sex,” Studies in the History of Art 72 (2007): 215. And Anne L. Schroder, “Fragonard’s Later Career: the Contes et Nouvelles and the Progress of Love Revisited,” Art Bulletin Vol. 93 (2011): 166.  

[4] Jacques Thuillier, Fragonard (Geneva, Switzerland: Rizzoli International Publications Inc, 1987): 42. 

[5] Schroder, 164-166. Despite being among his most famous works, there is very little confirmed information about this series. Additionally, after du Barry rejected them, Fragonard took them back and put them in storage for over twenty years. At the end of his life, he reexamined the series for a family member and added multiple paintings as well adding to the original four. 

[6] Mary D. Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990): 65. 

[7] Schroder, 164. 

[8] See the overarching books and articles included in the bibliography like those of Ashton and Thuillier.  

[9] Schroder, 165.

[10] Ashton, 143. 

[11] Thomas M. Kavanagh, “Boucher, Fragonard, and the Seductions of the Moment,” in Esthetics of the Moment: Literature and Art in the French Enlightenment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996): 228.

[12] Schroder, 165.

[13] Donald Posner, “The True Path of Fragonard’s Progress of Love,” The Burlington Magazine 114, no. 833 (1972): 526. 

[14] Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism. 89.

[15] Posner, 526-529: The theme of friendship would have been troubling to du Barry for two reasons. Madame du Pompadour adopted and developed the iconography of friendship in regards to her role as mistress of Louis XV at the end of her life when she was unable to have a physical relationship with him. Du Barry would have wanted to separate herself from Pompadour icnographically, but also, she was still in her prime and very capable of maintaining a sexual relationship. Therefore, the implication of this scene in one interpretation of Progress of Love would have been troubling.

[16] Joan Haslip, Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty (New York: Grove Press, Inc. 1991): 2.  

[17]Stephane Castelluccio and John Goodman, “The Two Apartments of Mme Du Barry at the Chateau De Marly,” Studies in the Decorative Arts 2, no. 2 (1995): 77. The affair between Louis and Madame du Barry began in the spring of 1768. The Queen died on June 24, 1768 and du Barry was formally presented on April 22, 1769. 

[18] Haslip, 37: The etiquette at Versailles was strict, especially for someone like du Barry who did not have an aristocratic background. She had to be formally presented first (she was on April 22, 1769, for more on this see Castelluccio) before she could have her own apartments at court. During this time, she was Louis’ unofficial mistress. Once she was presented, she could be established as the official royal mistress. Official mistresses were accepted at court and played an important role in the social culture of the court. Additionally, as official mistress, du Barry received a monthly allowance from the king. 

[19] Haslip, 47; “Madame du Barry,” The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature (1844-1898) Vol. 47, 1 (May 1859): 60. The king was not only allowed to give gifts, but was now able to give public displays of affection and the court had to respect his elevation of du Barry. 

[20] Haslip, 52. 

[21] Haslip, 81. “Her accounts, which have survived more or less intact for this period, show that her expenditure on jewelry (2,280,000 livres) and clothing (738,000 livres) far outstripped her commissions to painters and sculptors of the Academie royale (91,500 livres).” Colin B. Bailey, Fragonard’s Progress of Love at The Frick Collection (New York: D. Giles Limited, 2011): 54. 

[22] Haslip, 92. 

[23] Haslip, 81. 

[24] Haslip, 52. 

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