Masterpiece for masterpiece, the Frick is the best small museum in the United States for western painting before 1900. The institution reopens today in the Whitney Museum’s former flagship on Madison Avenue, where its art will be on view for the next two years while its own building is being renovated. On hand is enough great work to keep you absorbed for a lifetime, including four Piero della Francescas; three Vermeers; two Turners; and works by Goya, Tintoretto, Duccio, Constable, El Greco, Ingres, Titian, Tiepolo, Chardin, Watteau, Boucher, Memling, Manet, and Veronese (who used bodies of female insects, Hungarian copper carbonate, and resinous bug secretions to amp up his voluptuous color), as well as two of the most philosophical paintings in this country, Rembrandt’s late self-portrait and Velazquez’s Phillip IV. We stand agog before the hallucinogenic majesty of these pictures as one would gawking at the desert on mescaline.
Yet, amid these riches, there is, I am embarrassed to admit, one series of paintings in particular that stands out from the others for me, and it’s Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Progress of Love (1771–73). It’s embarrassing because Fragonard is the chief representative of (some would say culprit in) the most reviled period in all of art history: the Rococo.
The period may be said to have commenced on September 1, 1715, the day that France’s “Sun King,” Louis XIV, died. It was like a social iceberg melted: Overnight, stultifying court etiquette and social hierarchies began loosening. The style ceased to exist on July 14, 1789, as crowds stormed the Bastille and the French Revolution began: a definitive ending, an art-historical extinction event. In the years between, Rococo imparted something to western painting that had never quite been there before: the unbearable lightness and gladdening mercy of being alive, expressed in loose brushwork at small and medium scale — for the enjoyment of private owners. This wasn’t an art of kings, queens, and the church triumphant. It was first and last meant for pleasure, decoration, celebration, and love. People associate the spectral sweetness, ribbony linearity, and arabesque tapioca-like touch of the Rococo with pictures of walking orchids with nothing on their minds but sex and love. Indeed, some of the naughtiest paintings of the last 300 years are Rococo. But the period also probed the deepest nuances of life and gave us, in addition to Fragonard, five other full-fledged geniuses: Watteau, Goya, Boucher, Chardin, and Mozart.
In 1767, four years before starting Progress of Love, Fragonard became famous after creating the most celebrated painting of the era, usually known in English as The Swing. You know this painting even if you don’t know you know it. A young woman in a coral-colored dress swings on a velvet seat in a park. We see her at the apex of her arc, as her slipper flies off and the wind blows up her skirt and petticoats; her stockings, even a little thigh, are flashing into view. She looks down, toward a stunned young man on the ground who is gazing upward, shocked, falling over. We don’t know if he’s her husband, a lover, a stranger. He raises one hand in surprise or hosanna and with his other holds his hat up toward her. His pose echoes the naked Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel — in a fun pas de deux of flirtation. When this private picture was exhibited, Fragonard’s depiction of pleasure, exhibitionism, voyeurism, play, and the ritualized ways people have fun with and touch one another in public made him a star.
The Swing is not in the Frick collection. But that doesn’t matter, because all five of the paintings (and all the attendant panels) of The Progress of Love are just as visionary and exquisite — and at the largest scale on which he ever worked. (They’re also about the largest paintings in the museum.) We get a simmering vision of love drenched in aesthetic dopamine. There are pinks, powder blues, blooming fruit trees, bouquets of flowers. The cycle of paintings not only tells a tale of love; it embodies an entire era of art history. It also signals its waning and the coming conflagration of the French Revolution, the collapse of the ancien régime. It’s a last gasp, an encyclopedia of amour in a soon-to-be-purged world on the verge of destruction.
The paintings were commissioned by the last royal mistress of Louis XV, the Comtesse du Barry, to cover each of the walls of her new dining pavilion just outside Paris. When Fragonard showed the first four works to the comtesse, however, she rejected them as passé. Instead, she commissioned the insipid faux-antique paintings of Joseph-Marie Vien, images of sappy Greek maidens with no skeletons standing about gardens, crowning one another and offering each other odd garlands. Fragonard packed up his paintings and left. Later, he completed a fifth painting in the south of France.
What’s so fantastic about seeing these paintings at the Frick Breuer is not only how close you can get to the work, now that it’s not surrounded with furniture and bric-a-brac. In the mansion, the Fragonards are installed — even swaddled and segregated — in a wonderful Rococo drawing room, with attendant panels over doors and next to windows. Here, the work is given pride of place on the fourth floor next to the gigantic trapezoidal window looking out over Madison Avenue. Up close and at eye level, the work is reborn as these huge heraldic thunderous paintings, visually vehement and emotionally commanding. I love them more than I ever have.
The original four pictures show narratives of flirtation, courtship, clandestine meeting, quixotic love, adventurousness, allure gone right and wrong. The order of the narrative is unknown; all the titles, including the one for the series, were added later. Consider “The Pursuit” chapter one. Three young girls in billowy dresses lounge like little bored Venuses in a park. They are surprised by a young man who appears on the left with hat in hand, extending a rose to the central girl. It’s sweet and sappy; the girls react in a combination of faux alarm, tittering glee, and disinterest. The central girl, however, has jolted upright. She extends both arms out and tippy-toes on her slipper. Feel the jolt, a fish biting the line of first amorous interest. She looks directly at the rose. She seems game, unafraid. (I see him as already out of his league — or maybe that’s me projecting.)
Next comes “The Meeting.” Beneath a voluptuous Venus statue, our heroine is alone on a terrace. On the right side of the painting is a young man. He’s just gotten to the top of a ladder and is about to hop over the balustrade to join his amour. But she’s raising her hand to stop him, looking in the opposite direction. He freezes. While she may just be making sure the coast is clear, I also fancy that she just said good-bye to another suitor. Whatever the story, she’s running this show.
The next painting is “The Lover Crowned.” Something feels amiss here; irony and self-consciousness have entered the picture. In this canvas, the young woman’s attention isn’t riveted anymore on her young man — she’s posing as they are sketched by a nearby artist in a garden. Musical instruments are strewn about. She holds a garland of flowers over his head as he moons at her from below. Their emotional tenors are so different, though. She’s warm but not ardent; her passion is under wraps. He seems clueless. For me, this is love divided; a conflicted sexual dynamic or duplicity that threatens to break spells and cause pain has entered the picture. These couples and characters might perish outside this cloistered world.
Chapter 4 is “Love Letters.” Our couple is in a woodland clearing. There’s an ominous heart-shaped opening in the canopy of leaves behind them. Throughout these paintings, you come to realize that the gigantic surrounding landscapes have been closing in and may have always been the main feature. I see haze on the horizon, a waning cooler light. The woman reads what could be a love letter or a poem — maybe from her beau, who is again draped all over her. While she’s amused, he’s a puppet in love. A King Charles spaniel at their feet looks out at you like it knows something is off. A putto statue seems alarmed above them. The girl is blushing but still not especially involved. You suddenly realize we’ve never even seen these two truly embrace.
Around the time that the comtesse rejected these works, the roof fell in on Fragonard more generally. By 1778, Rococo was becoming discredited. There were new, pre-Revolutionary allegiances in art to Greek and Roman ideals. Rococo was seen as decadent, anti-Revolutionary. If art wasn’t for the greater good, it wasn’t seen as good at all. It was a time when government restrictions on freedoms were ratcheting up in western Europe; monarchs and ministers watched the American Revolution with apprehension. Secession movements multiplied throughout Europe. As unrest in France began to boil over, the king and censors cracked down, and the press was curtailed. The state reasserted its powers. Rococo was doomed. Fragonard died in 1806, forgotten and shunned.
He finished one last major project before that. In 1791, he completed The Progress of Love, adding a fifth major panel titled “Reverie.” It should be called “Breakdown” or “The End of a World.” This work is hung in a separate gallery at the Breuer — with ten other panels completed at the same time. Now we find the female protagonist in a psychic environment we have never seen before. She’s deserted, ghostly, spent, forsaken, collapsed. I see a grand era coming to a close, the fates moving in, destinies beckoning: It’s a new world where people no longer die among friends and family but among strangers, alone.
Here, Fragonard finally looks outside his lifelong palm grove of pleasure to what would eclipse and kill it. The painter had always avoided the dangerous intimacies and true vulnerabilities of love, even as he depicted romance. But his world had always been under pressure. The landscape was always closing in. Only Fragonard’s extraordinary touch, lustrous color, and frivolous version of love without shadows kept the wolf of reality at bay.