The Rejection of a Masterpiece Part 2

This is the continuation of The Rejection of a Masterpiece Part 1. You should definitely go and read that first if you want to understand what I’m talking about!


It is during this period as official mistress that du Barry began decorating Louveciennes. This palace was one of the first gifts Louis gave du Barry as official mistress upon which construction and decoration began in 1771.[1]Claude-Nicolas Ledoux was the architect of Louveciennes and he built the ultimate neo-classical pleasure palace.[2]However, that did not mean the entire palace was neo-classical. Ledoux worked closely with the artists to incorporate their works seamlessly with the architecture.[3] For example, François Boucher painted the ceiling of one of the main rooms in a clearly Rococo, not neo-classical style.[4] Ledoux in fact recommended Fragonard to du Barry, although she made the ultimate decision, and most likely worked closely with him as he was finalizing his designs.[5] Ledoux frequently worked with the artists commissioned to decorate his buildings to create cohesion between the art and the architecture. One of the most common assumptions in regards to du Barry’s rejection is that Fragonard’s Rococo cycle was too contrasting to Ledoux’s neo-classical design and either du Barry or Ledoux himself rejected the works as contradictory.[6] However, as Ledoux both chose Fragonard to complete the cycle and provided structure to him throughout the process, this explanation seems unlikely.[7] Additionally, in these situations, artists would provide sketches of all of the works to both the patron and the architect. While sketches of Progress of Love do not exist in their entirety, this was a common practice both for Fragonard as an artist and for du Barry as a patron- du Barry liked to be intimately involved in any artistic projects she commissioned.[8] Therefore, it is likely that both du Barry and Ledoux were acutely aware of the general designs of the cycle before Fragonard began painting the final panels and had approved them in their entirety.[9]

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

Throughout the design of this palace as well as her art patronage in general, du Barry was thinking about both Madame du Pompadour and Marie Antoinette.[10] Pompadour was her direct predecessor as official mistress and had been an influential art patron as she encouraged the development of the Rococo style and used art to create her image. No matter what she did, du Barry was always compared to Pompadour, who had made a large mark on the court and society as a whole. Although disliked by the end of her life, she had shaped culture at Versailles with her gaiety and artistic commissions.[11] In a similar way, Marie Antoinette utilized art to her advantage. However, du Barry had a very different relationship with her. Unlike Pompadour, du Barry and Marie Antoinette directly interacted at Versailles as Marie Antoinette arrived during du Barry’s time as official mistress. Despite this status though, Marie Antoinette snubbed du Barry and encouraged the discord that would always exist between the two women.[12] Marie Antoinette’s attitude was only further encouraged by the resentment that some members of court still harbored for du Barry due to her low birth.[13] Du Barry frequently felt this disadvantage of her lower beginnings and worked to elevate herself to the level of these two women, especially Madame du Pompadour through her own art patronage and her use of art to self-fashion her image.[14]

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

In her art patronage, Madame du Barry was trying to follow in Madame du Pompadour’s footsteps but also differentiate herself from the previous mistress. Pompadour had been an active patron of Boucher and his Rococo style during her lifetime.[15] She enjoyed the frivolous scenes of love and the implied (and sometimes explicit) themes of sensuality and eroticism. Although du Barry wanted to be like Pompadour, she “showed a preference for cabinet pictures and genre subjects of occasionally sentimental themes,” including the work of artists like Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.[16] Some scholars use this history of collecting to argue that du Barry did not like the Rococo style. One writes “coloring, freedom of handling, and sensuality were out of keeping with the qualities of finish she seems most to have admired.”[17] However, in June of 1770, she purchased four overdoor paintings by Fragonard from the portraitist François-Hubert Drouais.[18] She did not, in this case, interact with Fragonard or directly commission the works. However, she did pick them from a collection and did not try and sell them after the fact.[19] Du Barry installed the four allegorical works in Louveceinnes after the construction was completed.[20] For this reason, it is clear that the Rococo style did not bother du Barry. She knew who she was commissioning the cycle from and what his style was like; Fragonard’s Rococo style had been publicly defined by The Swing (Figure 7) in 1766 and Progress of Love is a continuation of that concept.[21] Additionally, the allegorical works were completed in 1770 and mimic the style of The Swing in addition to his other works. Due to this, it is unlikely that du Barry would have commissioned works from such an artist if she disliked his style. It is reasonable to conclude that she rejected the cycle for another reason. 

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

There are two remaining theories to be disproved before it can be fully understood why du Barry rejected Fragonard’s work: the first is that Fragonard revolted against du Barry so she rejected them in response and the second is that the works looked too much like her and the king. It is relatively easy to undermine the idea that Fragonard revolted against du Barry.[22] While his style in general can be considered a revolt against the Academy and the neo-classical style, Fragonard as an individual artist was not rebellious.[23] In fact, Fragonard frequently adapted himself to the desires of his individual patrons by not determining themes or styles ahead of time, but finding ones to please a particular person and location.[24] For example, one of his most defining works, The Swing, was not a unique conception, but almost entirely conceived by the patron, Baron Saint-Julien who wanted the painting to include a cleric, swing, his mistress, and himself posed on the grass so as to see up her skirt.[25] This lack of artistic opinion has been attributed to the theory that Fragonard worked for money above all else.[26] With this in mind, it is extremely unlikely that he would revolt against his patron in such an extreme way that could jeopardize the commission. In addition, a commission from the king’s mistress was an honor and a prestige commission that could lead to future commissions from other wealthy members of the aristocracy. Rebelling against such a patron would have jeopardized Fragonard’s entire artistic career in France. This theory is a convenient one for scholars unwilling to delve deeper, but proves unable to explain why du Barry rejected the cycle. 

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

The final explanation that scholars have employed to understand du Barry’s rejection is that the amorous scenes too closely resembled her and the king. This theory, similarly to the previous ones, does not stand up to examination for two reasons. First of all, despite being frivolous and sensuous, there would have been no need for the king and his official mistress to shy away from these themes. The works were commissioned for du Barry’s personal palace that the king had gifted to her just a few years before. The king and du Barry were open about their relationship at court as it was socially acceptable to have an official mistress and the king’s wife had already been dead for multiple years.[27]Du Barry even lived in rooms that were connected to the king’s bedroom by a secret, private staircase.[28] There was nothing preventing the couple from showing their affection in this way either socially or culturally. Additionally, the replacement cycle by Vien resembles the king and du Barry even more than Fragonard’s cycle. While the hairstyles connote a high social standing and the male lover is typically seen above the female figure in Progress of Love, the similarities are not the same between the panels and the figures among the four scenes are clearly different.[29] In contrast, Vien’s cycle of the same subject features the same figures throughout and the woman closely resembles contemporary portraits of du Barry. If du Barry had rejected the cycle because of its allusion to her and the king, she would have insisted that the replacement work share no resemblance.[30] However, the opposite happens with Vien’s cycle, which discredits this explanation. 

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

The discussion of the previously provided explanations of du Barry’s rejection of Fragonard’s cycle aims to show that the relationship between du Barry, Fragonard, and the Progress of Love cycle is not easily explained and has yet to be adequately explored by scholars. This paper, therefore, provides an alternative explanation. Instead of rejecting this series based on its artistic style, price, or scandalous nature, I propose that Madame du Barry rejected Fragonard’s work because of its failure to closely resemble her and her relationship with the king. Examining Fragonard’s cycle with its replacement reveals some important difference that provide insight into du Barry’s decision to reject the works. First, the subject is the same as is the scale. The major differences are the style and the figures themselves. Vien’s work is firmly grounded within the neo-classical tradition.[31] However, as has been discussed above, the style did not contribute to du Barry’s decision. Therefore, the figures must be examined. In Fragonard’s series, the figures do not resemble each other indicating that it is not a strict narrative cycle, although still thematically connected. Vien’s figures however, are the same from panel to panel, which creates a narrative between the works. Additionally, the female figures in Vien’s cycle bear a striking resemblance to contemporary portraits of Madame du Barry. The male figures also look like Louis XV when he was significantly younger. These differences can be interpreted as one of the changes du Barry stipulated when she had the Fragonard cycle replaced. This is the first indication that du Barry rejected Fragonard’s cycle because the figures did not resemble the king and her.  

The question than arises of why would du Barry be so adamant that the works resemble her and the king? The first obvious response is that du Barry wanted to establish a visual link between the king and her. With no background to speak of, not reputable connections, family members, or money of her own, her link to the king was her only connection to power, money, and status. The relationship completely defined her status at court and publicly representing it would make it difficult for her adversaries to question her. Not only did she have this connection, but from 1770 to 1773, du Barry was at the height of her social power. She was essentially ruling the court at Versailles during this time and a painting cycle commemorating her love affair with Louis would serve to reiterate her place at court and her power. Finally, the location these works were designed for must be taken into consideration. This palace had been gifted to du Barry by the king and it was for her personal use. It was a symbol of her new wealth and status, but more importantly, a symbol of her relationship with the king. To decorate the main room with a painting cycle alluding to her and the king falling in love would echo those sentiments and remind all of visitors of her connection to the king. Therefore, du Barry did not reject this cycle because it was too sensuous or expensive. Instead, she rejected it because it was not sensuous enough in that it did not clearly allude to her relationship to Louis. 

As one of Fragonard’s most elaborate commissions, Progress of Love has clearly been situated within the context of Fragonard’s oeuvre and overall style. However, its commission and ultimate rejection are made secondary in favor of its discussion as an important cornerstone of the Rococo style and Fragonard’s oeuvre as a whole. This paper has attempted to rectify this by not only discussing how the work was commissioned, but by addressing why the work was ultimately rejected by its prestigious patron. 

[1] Schroder, 164. An additional aspect to becoming official mistress was that du Barry was now able to have her own rooms at court instead of staying in someone else’s rooms. The gifting of this palace, was an extension of this privilege. 

[2] Ashton, 142 and Haslip, 90.

[3] The Eclectic Magazine, 62. It was said that “not a lock to a door [at Louveciennes] that was not a work of art.”

[4] Haslip, 91.

[5] Ashton, 142.

[6] Thuillier, 103.

[7] Bailey, 62. 

[8] Bailey, 56.

[9] Bailey, 63. 

[10] Ashton, 142. 

[11] Haslip, 19.

[12] Castelluccio, 89. 

[13] The Eclectic Magazine, 56. In 1859, in relation to Madame du Pompadour, du Barry was described as “the less gifted, less artistic, and less tasteful.” 

[14] Haslip, 42. In addition to her art patronage, du Barry also worked to create her own image through her memoirs, which were published in 1788 and had used Pompadour and writings about her as inspiration and guidelines. See her Memoirs in Four Volumes for more information. 

[15] Kavanagh, 203.

[16] Bailey, 54. She had also begun a collection of Old Master paintings. 

[17] Bailey, 54. 

[18] Bailey, 61also, see Thuillier, 42.

[19] Schroder, 165. The concept of selling the works after the fact is intriguing because du Barry did not sell the Fragonard overdoor paintings, but she did try to sell two of the works from the Vien series in 1775 when Louis died. 

[20] Schroder, 165. 

[21] Schroder, 151.

[22] For more details on this theory, see Ashton, 152.  

[23] Schroder, 150: Fragonard was known for his originality in manner and technique.

[24] Mary D. Sheriff, “For Love or Money? Rethinking Fragonard,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 19, no. 3 (1986): 337. 

[25] Sheriff, “For Love or Money? Rethinking Fragonard,” 340. 

[26] Sheriff, “For Love or Money? Rethinking Fragonard,” 337. 

[27] Castelluccio, 77.

[28]Castelluccio, 79. 

[29] Schroder, 165: The lovers in The Pursuit are thought to resemble the king and his mistress the most, but the characteristics do not feature in the other three works. 

[30] Haslip, 56.

[31] Schroder, 164.

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