‘Like a sexy Annunciation’: Alan Hollinghurst on Fragonard’s erotic masterpiece

Not long after I’d first seen the Fragonard Room at the Frick in New York, I was trying to describe the four great canvases of The Progress of Love to a friend. I found that the narrative itself had blurred; it was now a mere impression, only sketchily recalled. What I remembered, overwhelmingly, were the trees. Later, I kept four postcards of the paintings on the shelf above my desk, where they got shifted in and out of sequence, and always it was the trees that caught my eye and seemed, in their huge, almost unearthly forms, to bow and beckon to each other.

Back in the room itself, years later, I regained the sense of scale. It is as if we look out into a fantastic parkland that fills the view; the paintings, more than 10 feet-high and closely spaced, become a frieze of eloquent gestures enacted in a setting of luxuriant strangeness and power. The darting and gesturing young lovers seem wholly unaware of this setting. They live only in and for themselves. But the viewer takes in the whole complex picture.

In 1760, the two most brilliant and inventive French painters of the age – Hubert Robert and Jean-Honoré Fragonard – were both, coincidentally, in Rome. Robert, the younger by a year, found in the monuments of the city a subject that would energise him for the rest of his working life. He was to be one of the great painters of buildings, with a keen sense of the emotional power of the classical world in decay. His favoured genre was the capriccio, in which real and invented buildings coexist in dreamlike new combinations.

Fragonard went out sketching with Robert, and for both men, then in their late 20s, Italy provided a first experience of drawing in the open air. But Fragonard’s dream world was from the start decidedly unlike his friend’s and barely featured buildings at all. His great subject would be the human figure, especially when caught in moments of play or passion – and the settings he gave it show a very particular responsiveness to nature.

During that summer of 1760, Fragonard was staying with his patron, the Abbé de Saint-Non, at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, 20 miles outside Rome. The villa, in fact, was up for sale, and the gardens – laid out 200 years before, with abundant fountains, cascades and grottoes on a steep, terraced site – were overgrown and dilapidated; the ancient sculptures were being sold off. Fragonard made drawings of the stairways, fountains, and balustrades in picturesque decline and used them as settings for pictures of parties and games, much as Jean-Antoine Watteau had done and Fragonard’s own master, François Boucher, after him.

The grandest and greatest of Fragonard’s drawings is a depiction in red chalk of the famous cypresses that flank the long central axis of the gardens. The massive trees reach nearly to the top of the vertical sheet, two parallel rows, dwarfing the statues beneath them and the hazily seen ascent to the villa beyond. Scale becomes impossible to judge. Perhaps 100 feet above the two tiny silhouetted figures on the path below, the cypresses lean together. There is a tantalising channel of clear sky between them, but a gust of wind would make the trees kiss and interlock.

After the Italian visit, Fragonard’s perception of trees was to grow more psychologically intense and pictorially overwhelming. Northern landscape painting very naturally centred on trees, as elements in the richly wooded context of everyday life, which also lent tone, mass and structure to a composition and conveyed a historic sense of time. All trees are transient, but tree time is different from human time, a fact we may find by turns sobering and reassuring.

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