Fragonard repeated the compositions of the small pendant paintings known as Love as Folly and Love the Sentinel [fig. 1] numerous times during his career; a second pair also belongs to the National Gallery of Art (Love as Folly and Love the Sentinel). In Love the Sentinel a chubby Cupid stands before a flowering rosebush at what appears to be the edge of a garden or park (a balustrade marking its outer limits is visible in the left and right middle ground). He looks out at the viewer, proffering an arrow in his right hand while holding his left hand to his lips; a quiver lies at his feet, and two doves fly away against a cloud-filled sky. Love as Folly shows a matching figure in a similar setting, although he flies jauntily through the air, raising aloft a stick topped by a fool’s cap; his action seems to frighten away a flock of doves, several more of which are visible on the ground. The paintings clearly were intended as a pair: they are of similar size, the subjects and scale of the figures are compatible, and the compositions balance nicely. The earthbound, stable putto in one complements the more active flying boy in the other. In all likelihood Love the Sentinel was intended to be hung to the left of Love as Folly, so that the figures are turned toward each other.
Scholars usually have dated the various versions of the compositions to the early 1770s on the basis of style. Their light color scheme, rapid brushwork, and lighthearted subjects are similar to numerous small paintings, often in oval format, that Fragonard produced in the years around 1770. During this period he was at work on his most celebrated cycle of decorative paintings, the large canvases called The Progress of Love, painted around 1771 – 1772 at the request of Madame du Barry for her pleasure pavilion at Louveciennes outside Paris and now in the Frick Collection, New York. The present works related closely to two of four overdoors associated with this commission [fig. 2] [fig. 3], although there are minor differences in details (such as the position of the putto’s legs in Love as Folly) and the Frick canvases are considerably larger and are rectangular rather than oval. More significantly, the compositions of the overdoors are in reverse of the small ovals.
The precise relationship between the various versions of Love as Folly and Love the Sentinel and the Frick’s overdoors is difficult to determine. It is not certain when Fragonard painted the latter pictures, which are not usually thought to have been part of the original commission for Madame du Barry in the early 1770s. After the main panels of The Progress of Love were rejected by their patron, Fragonard purportedly kept them rolled in his studio until he returned to his native Grasse in 1790. There he installed the cycle in the house of his cousin, Alexandre Maubert. At that time he added several new paintings to the series, including a fifth large panel, a group of narrow canvases representing hollyhocks, and a chimneypiece, Love Triumphant, showing a group of putti rising — appropriately enough — through clouds of smoke, the top figure holding two flaming torches. It has generally been assumed that the four overdoors also date to this later period of 1790 – 1791. Therefore, they would have been produced long after the small oval canvases, versions of which were engraved by Jean François Janinet (1752 – 1814) in 1777. René Gimpel even suggests that when painting the overdoors in Grasse, Fragonard relied on these engravings, accounting for the reversal of the compositions. Pierre Rosenberg has argued, however, that the Frick overdoors were part of the original commission from du Barry, placing their execution date to the same period of the small oval canvases.
This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 167–172.
Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.
January 1, 2009