Unraveling the Mysteries of The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Artwork(s) In Focus, Art History

February 2, 2021

Following Baroque was another, more exuberant style – Rococo, the most lavish, vigorous, and outrageous tendency of them all. It was born out of the taste of the sprawling bourgeoise surrounding the French monarch in the 1730s during the reign of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s most influential mistress. Rococo was expressed mostly in highly decorative interior design and is characterized by trompe-l’oeil frescos, curves, asymmetry, gilding, and white and pastel colors. It spread quickly to other European monarchies in southern Germany, Austria, northern Italy, Central Europe, and Russia, and made quite an impact on applied arts, but also music, theater, and reasonably painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was the artist who remained forgotten for a long time, even though he had a seminal role in embodying the frivolousness, splendor, and whimsicality of Rococo. This notable French painter and printmaker was praised for his genre representations of exuberance, hedonism, and refined eroticism, most often made for private patrons. Interestingly so, only five paintings by Fragonard are dated, out of the total of more than 550 paintings (drawings and prints are not included) that the artist made throughout his career.

One of his best-known artworks and a masterpiece that encapsulated the Rococo frenzy is The Swing from 1767. Also originally called The Happy Accidents of the Swing, or in French Les Hasards heureux de l'escarpolette, it can be found at The Wallace Collection in London. Like a dash of a spring breeze, this particular painting sweeps the face of the viewer with its lightness, cheerfulness, and humor; at the time it was produced, this artwork was an epitome of the erotic sway.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard - The See-Saw, between 1750 and 1755. Oil on canvas, 120 cm (47.2 in) x 95 cm (37.4 in). Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

The Becoming of The Swing

Namely, in 1767 baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien commissioned The Swing from Fragonard to express all the excitement around the seduction of his mistress. The Baron initially wanted to hire the history painter Gabriel François Doyen to produce the work, but he declined the offer due to the controversial and tacky content of the commission. Fragonard felt far more relaxed, realizing he would benefit from the commission in terms of transiting from the canons of historical painting to becoming an artist in vogue cherished by the upper class.

Under the spotlight is the baron’s mistress, a young woman clothed in a pink dress, floating above the ground on a cushioned swing as her shoe goes off her feet into the air. Besides her, the painting features the baron himself in the bushes on the left enjoying the sight, and a hidden, smiling older man who navigates the swing with a pair of ropes in the shadows on the right.

This menage a trois is accompanied by the presence of a mischievous cupid sculpture after Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s Seated Cupid (1757), with a finger in front of its lips in a sign of silence which observes the young man on the left watches from above, and the pair of putti, who watch from beside the older man accompanied by a small dog barking next to him.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard - The Swing

The Interpretation

Before Jean-Honoré Fragonard made The Swing, he produced several other paintings around the theme of sexual tension taking place in gardens such as The See-Saw (1750 – 52) and Blind Man's Bluff (ca. 1750–1769). In the 18th century France, the garden was perceived as a fantasy site of a romantic escapade where love could manifest freed of the condemning morality of society. To follow up the gardening tendencies and a general emphasis on nature (to be extended in the coinciding Romantic era), the women are presented as blossoming flowers so the storytelling bursts into the erotic.

To keep up the tension, the composition unravels gradually, following the motion of the shift from husband to lover, and vice versa, thus encouraging the viewers to project their desires and indulge in the private moment that is supposed not be seen.

Here we could mention once again the Menacing Cupid, the sculpture that evokes a complex historical and symbolical context. It indicates that love is also exposed to a limited flow of time as marble. However, this connotation is overshadowed by the sensual movement and dramatic light and shade contrasts that were masterfully executed by the painter.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard - The Progress of Love: The Meeting, from 1771 until 1773. Oil on canvas, 317.5 cm (10.4 ft) x 243.8 cm (95.9 in). The Frick Collection. Image via Creative Commons.

The Iconic Status of Fragonard’s Swing

Depictions of frivolousness like this one were targeted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who requested a far more serious art that would show the nobility of man. Fragonard kept his approach fresh during the following decade and produced the series of large panel paintings titled The Progress of Love (1771 – 73), commissioned by Madame du Barry.

Fragonard made two copies of The Swing – the one featuring the woman in a blue dress that was once owned by Edmond James de Rothschild; and a smaller version (56 × 46 cm), owned by Duke Jules de Polignac, acquired by the Grimaldi family in 1930 and bequeathed thirty years later to the city of Versailles, where it is currently held.

The Swing’s narrative has made it immensely popular throughout the centuries, and even today it fuses the minds of visual artists, cinematographs, and popular culture in general; take for instance the imagery of Yinka Shonibare’s 2001 installation Disney’s Frozen (2013) or Sofia Coppola’s historical drama Marie Antoinette from 2006.

Although numerous intrigues surround the story of the painting, it also certainly unravels a humorous 18th-century fantasy; observing it from today’s perspective looks like a slapstick comedy sequence. Nevertheless, the painting encompassed to perfection all the drama, hedonism, intrigue, and dangerous liaisons of the Rococo era and is rightfully adorned and saluted for that.

Featured image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard - The Swing, 1767. Oil on canvas, 81 cm (31.8 in) x 64 cm (25.1 in). Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom. Image creative commons.

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