The Progress of Love: The Love Letters | Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: The Progress of Love: The Love Letters

February 26, 2013

The Progress of Love: The Love Letters


This post focuses on the fourth piece to complete Fragonard's The Progress of Love (this title for the series is more recently given).  The panel is now call The Love Letters.  If you have not already, check out the other posts in this series, linked at the bottom of this post. 




This panel may have been located across from The Pursuit and next to The Lover Crowned at Louveciennes.  Guest at Louveciennes would see this piece at best when returning from the gardens and entering through the large glass doorway.


Two youths sit in the center of this garden, in a close embrace and wearing soft elegant clothing.  The boy's hand is placed in a suggestive spot, so you can imagine the intense sexual attraction between them.  Moving up to his face, you will see an passionate gaze fixed only on the young lady.  He appears to only see her as she reads through letter after letter, written in his own hand (we can safely assume!).  The letters are piled up on the stone pillar next to her, the red sealing wax still attached.  She is perched so high on the stone element it would be feasible that he placed her there, and stuck her parasol in the vines to free his hands. 

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, European, The Progress of Love (Love Letters). 1771-73, oil on canvas. The Frick Collection.
Flowers spill across the grass around them and a small spaniel sits patiently on the girls side.  Dogs in paintings such as this would stand for fidelity, and we can read it as such.  So we have a couple, loyal to each other, recalling the past. They are framed by foliage, and sunlight shines through a heart shaped opening, highlighting them.  Author Mary Sheriff points out that the couple is perched on and against a pedestal, much like the one the sculptures stand on to their left.  Rather than the couple imitating the near by sculptures such as in The Pursuit, they are now truly the focus of the scene, in the spotlight.


The sculpture of Venus appears as Friendship, many see sculpture as dominating the painting.  She looms over the scene withholding an object of desire from the little cupid (the heart!).  This has been read differently by a variety of historians, and a popular theory is that the girl is only offering friendship now that things have cooled.  Is she withholding something from her lover? What do you think?

After a romp in the park with the duc or comtesse you just met, you will be pleased to see The Love Letters on the wall across from you.  As you sip down some ratafia you might smile to see the two lovers engage in memories of their past affair.  You will, no doubt, blush as you recall your own recent affairs!

The full series:

8 comments

  1. It is a beautiful piece. The word 'atmospheric' comes to mind, though the atmosphere here is so gentle and sweet that it doesn't conjure what that term usually does - a darker, more foreboding tone. I agree that the statue does not dominate the scene because my eye goes right to the couple. If you think through its symbolism literally, that friendship does not always give love what it wants, than the interpretation that the lady's affections have cooled seems accurate. Could this mean that Fragonard wisely created a painting that was sweet on the surface, knowing this would be a more crowd-pleasing commission, but packed it with a hidden, melancholic story to please his artistic need to be a bit wry or sardonic?

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  2. I had heard that the famous royal mistress Madame du Barry was the model for all of the Progress of Love paintings. Can anyone confirm this?

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  3. I did a study of this painting a few years ago. From my research (into others' research, of course), I learned that it was a couple who was reading old love letters they had sent each other years ago. The statue represented the friendship that had grown between the couple as their lives came together over the years.

    That's what I remember, anyway.
    This is one of my favorites by Fragonard.

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  4. DuBarry certainly had the right flaxen blonde coloring to be the model.

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  5. One of my favorites. That's why I chose it for the banner of my blog :)

    Great post!! Thank you for writing this!

    Au revoir!

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  6. I purchased a book on the biography of this series of paintings. It was my one souvenir from the Louvre and I treasure it. It's full of history, facts, photos and behind the scenes info. It's called "Fragonard's Progress of Love at the Frick Collection" by Colin B. Bailey. You can find it on Amazon for a lot less than it cost me in France! Love your post and sharing the beauty of this artwork. ~ xo Joy

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  7. I purchased a book on the biography of this series of paintings. It was my one souvenir from the Louvre and I treasure it. It's full of history, facts, photos and behind the scenes info. It's called "Fragonard's Progress of Love at the Frick Collection" by Colin B. Bailey. You can find it on Amazon for a lot less than it cost me in France! Love your post and sharing the beauty of this artwork. ~ xo Joy

    ReplyDelete