The Fragonard Room, located at The Frick Collection, is a Fifth Avenue mansion and European art collection on East 70th Street in New York that was once the home of American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and is now home to 11 masterworks by 18th century French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The four largest paintings, a series of panels named “The Progress of Love,” were commissioned by Louis XV in 1771 for his mistress Madame du Barry. Fragonard completed an additional four paintings in the series in about 1790. The paintings, which depict scenes of love with a Rococo-style exuberance, were acquired by Frick from the collection of fellow industrialist J.P. Morgan in 1915 and were then installed as a complete set. Only a chandelier and natural light provided illumination for the room and the paintings until a renovation in 1947 introduced a recessed electric lighting system. That lighting stayed in place until 2007 when lighting designer Richard Renfro was called upon to breathe new life into the outdated lighting scheme.

The 1947 electric lighting system consisted of frosted T-lamps recessed in lensed slots above each painting. While sophisticated for its time, this approach only lit the upper portion of the paintings and spilled light onto the gilded molding at the ceiling. The goal of the 2007 renovation (which focused solely on this one room) was to update and improve the outdated lighting system and to uniformly illuminate the full 10 feet 5 inches of each painting according to accepted conservation levels of 20 footcandles. The Frick wanted to respect the historic setting without “losing the residential feel” of the room, explains the museum's chief conservator, Joseph Godla. Since the room's two French door–style windows on the west wall provide some natural light for the space, the intent of the new lighting design was to supplement the daylight, not overpower it.

So as not to disturb the look of the ceiling, Renfro set out to develop a solution that utilized the existing lighting slots above each painting. Two mock-ups were conducted on-site with the lighting team and the conservators. The first was to determine the feasibility of using the ceiling slots. Only 25 inches away from the wall, there was concern that the slots might be too close to the wall to allow enough distance for the light source to project sufficiently. The second mock-up examined using two aiming angles—one for the upper portion of the painting and a second one for the lower portion of the painting—each on its own circuit. The studies led Renfro to design a custom light fitting that would work within the existing ceiling slot dimensions. The final version of the custom lensed fixture contains a row of closely spaced low-voltage 20W halogen fixed reflector lamps with two aiming angles, to uniformly light the entire artwork, and with two circuits to ensure balanced light levels.

The lighting renovation also made it possible to accent the decorative arts objects—porcelain vases and gilded mantle piece sculptures—displayed around the room. To accomplish this, fiber-optic fixtures were integrated in separate compartments at each end of the custom housings. Each fiber-optic head is adjustable with a 180-degree rotation and tilt allowing for maximum flexibility in aiming. The sculptures and vases are only lit from the side opposite the windows to provide shaping “with a small amount of light, very precise,” explains Renfro. “Just enough to add sparkle to the glaze [of the porcelain objects].”

Completed in Oct. 2007, the Fragonard Room lighting renovation has enhanced the historic works of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, revealing details and colors in the paintings not previously visible. The careful consideration of how to incorporate contemporary lighting technologies while preserving the domestic setting of the Frick Collection has proved so successful, the museum has again called upon Renfro and his firm's expertise to adapt a similar lighting strategy (sans fiber-optics) in a second gallery—the Boucher Room. With a deft hand and design restraint, Renfro's lighting serves as the perfect foil to Fragonard's lively paintings.

Project The Fragonard Room, The Frick Collection, New York
Client/Owner The Frick Collection, New York
Lighting Designer Renfro Design Group, New York
Project Size 800 square feet
Manufacturers Drama Lighting, Luxam, Lutron, Nulux, Visual Lighting Technologies