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Story of “The Progress of Love”

on September 20, 2011 – 10:04 am

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Progress of Love is one of the great painted ensembles of French eighteenth-century art and is considered to be the artist’s masterpiece. For more than seventy-five years, the panels have been a highlight of  The Frick Collection in New York.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was commissioned in 1771 to complete four large canvases for the comtesse Du Barry, the consort of Louis XV. They were installed in 1772 in the pavilion in Louveciennes built for her outside of Paris by the king. By 1773 the canvases—The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and Love Letters—had been rejected by Du Barry and returned to the artist. In 1790, Fragonard moved the canvases to his cousin’s house, the Villa Maubert, in Grasse, and over the course of the year, he painted ten additional panels: two large-scale works, Love Triumphant and Reverie; four narrow canvases depicting hollyhocks, and four overdoors of putti. Sold by the Maubert estate to the dealer Agnew’s in 1898, the panels subsequently decorated a drawing room in the London home of financier and art collector J. P. Morgan. With his death, the works passed through the hands of dealer Joseph Duveen, who in 1915 brokered their sale to industrialist and collector Henry Clay Frick, and arranged for their installation in the Fifth Avenue museum that now houses the celebrated museum.

The Fragonard Room as presented today at The Frick Collection, New York.
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Colin B. Bailey’s keenly awaited and beautifully illustrated book published by The Frick Collection museum in association with D. Giles Limited provides an invaluable and engaging resource on the sequence and meaning of the panels in the series. It explores the history of the work from its conception in France to its rediscovery by two great American collectors more than one hundred years later and tells the fascinating story of how the group of canvases found a permanent home in the New York City mansion of Henry Clay Frick, where the museum’s visitors enjoy them today.

Reconstructed view of room at Louveciennes, showing the intended orientation of
Fragonard’s Progress of Love as commissioned for the comtesse du Barry.
Photomontage by Michael Bodycomb

The tale, however, has resonance and appeal beyond the walls of the institution. A study of these beautiful panels offers a window into the complex world of art and architectural taste-makers and patronage in eighteenth-century France, as well as the history of collecting in Europe and America during the two centuries that followed their creation. Fragonard’s Progress of Love at The Frick Collection was written by Bailey, the Frick’s Associate Director and Peter Jay Sharp Curator.

This publication is the result of several years of new—and heretofore unpublished—research by author Colin B. Bailey. The richly illustrated book features more than 135 color images of the masterpiece and details thereof, much of it new photography; as well as archival and contemporary views of the rooms that Fragonard’s series has occupied, plans, original sketches, and comparative images.

Fragonard’s Progress of Love at The Frick Collection is available at the Museum Shop of the Frick.