He travelled and drew landscapes with Hubert Robert and responded with especial sensitivity to the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, memories of which occur in paintings throughout his career. In 1765 he became a member of the Academy with his historical picture in the Grand Manner Coroesus Sacrificing himself to Save Callirhoe (Louvre, Paris). He soon abandoned this style, however, for the erotic canvases by which he is chiefly known (The Swing, Wallace Collection, London, c. 1766). After his marriage in 1769 he also painted children and family scenes. He stopped exhibiting at the Salon in 1767 and almost all his work was done for private patrons. Among them was Mme du Barry, Louis XV's most beautiful mistress, for whom he painted the works that are often regarded as his masterpieces -- the four canvases representing The Progress of Love (Frick Collection, New York, 1771-73). These, however, were returned by Mme du Barry and it seems that taste was already turning against Fragonard's lighthearted style. He tried unsuccessfully to adapt himself to the new Neoclassical vogue, but in spite of the admiration and support of David he was ruined by the Revolution and died in poverty.
Fragonard was a prolific painter, but he rarely dated his works and it is not easy to chart his stylistic develop;ent. Alongside those of Boucher, his paintings seem to sum up an era. His delicate coloring, witty characterization, and spontaneous brushwork ensured that even his most erotic subjects are never vulgar, and his finest work has an irresistible verve and joyfulness.
Photographs by Mark Harden and Carol Gerten-Jackson.
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