Were you among the well-heeled in Ancien Régime France, and slightly saucy, Jean- Honoré Fragonard was your go-to guy for racy portraiture. His gift was for a kind of rococo coloration that felt faintly orgastic, but with a knack—even a brilliance—in embedding deeper meaning within those lavish settings. Fragonard painted over 500 canvases, and didn’t date more than a half dozen of them. His aim, in one regard, was to please his clientele, though we’re fortunate for the time that he failed to do so, or else his finest canvas, The Progress of Love: The Meeting, would likely not exist.
“Progress” is a fecund word throughout the history of the arts, from medium to medium. We are in the realm of the quest, the journey, the inspirited search for something tabulated as arduous, but worth the corresponding effort. Love, of course, will fit this bill, and Madame du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV, has pictorial ardor in mind when she commissions a series of paintings from Fragonard, encompassing the germination and development of romantic connection.
The Meeting is the first undertaking, and one is initially struck by the Edenic barrage. To say we have a lush garden would be understatement. This is the earth as multi-hued algal bloom. A maiden, seated on a bench slightly off-center, and hyper-alert, looks to the left, doubtless having heard a stray sound that could be the young man for whom she waits. But that fellow has entered from the right and is already upon the scene. He’s stalled in his movement, as is she in hers, both individuals as if on perches, a kind of aerie of expectation. We can nearly feel their thoughts. What should I say? Shall I be clever? Earnest? What if we are caught?
This is a covert undertaking—the penalty of capture, for the young woman, at least, was a stint at a convent. Not where one wishes to be in the late teenybopper years. The trees overhead, framing the duo, are v-shaped—Fragonard could get a might gynecological. A statue of Venus bifurcates this symbolic valley, and, yes, it’s priapic. The prevailing mood, though, is that tizzy-inducing mixture of fear and hope. One desires to be accepted, just as one wishes to love and not have to endure the forestalling of feelings. There is an ocular capacity to love, but there is also the choice to be vulnerable to another—Fragonard has freeze-framed that love in limpid vignette, one which also seems pregnant with motion. Click the fingers, and he will advance, she will turn, and the pairing will go from there, for such is life.