The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767)

The Rococo style of art was characterised by lightness, grace, playfulness and intimacy and emerged out of France around the beginning of the 18th century and in the following century spread throughout Europe.  The actual word rococo is thought to have been used disapprovingly by a pupil of Jacques-Louis David who ridiculed the taste, which was in vogue in the mid-18th century.  He combined the artistic genres of rocaille, which prospered in the mid 16th century and was applied to works that depicted fancy rock-work and shell-work, and barocco (baroque) genre. 

The featured artist in My Daily Art Display is Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose works are amongst the most complete embodiments of the Rococo spirit.   He has been described as the “fragrant essence” of the 18th century.  He was famous for the fluid grace and sensuous charm of his paintings and for the virtuosity of his technique.  The painting by Fragonard featured today is probably his most famous and is the oil on canvas work entitled The Swing which he completed in 1767 and which is now part of the Wallace Collection in London.

The story behind the painting is fascinating and well documented.  The French dramatist and songwriter Charles Collé tells how he met the painter Francois Doyen in 1767 who tells him that he has been approached by a “gentleman of the court” who had seen one of his religious paintings being exhibited in Paris.  The painter Doyen goes to meet the gentleman and relates to Collé what happened next:

“…I found him at his ‘pleasure house’ with his mistress.  He started by flattering me with courtesies and finished by avowing that he was dying with a desire to have me make a picture, the idea of which he was going to outline. I should like Madame (pointing to his mistress) on a swing that a bishop would set going. You will place me in such a way that I would be able to see the legs of the lovely girl, and better still, if you want enliven your picture a little more……. I confess, M. Doyen said to me, that this proposition, which I wouldn’t have expected, considering the character of the picture that led to it, perplexed me and left me speechless for a moment. I collected myself, however, enough to say to him almost at once: “Ah Monsieur, it is necessary to add to the essential idea of your picture by making Madame’s shoes fly into the air and having some cupids catch them.”

Doyen decided not to accept the commission but instead passed it on to Fragonard.  The identity of the patron is unknown, though he was at one time thought to have been the Baron de Saint-Julien, the Receiver General of the French Clergy, which would have explained the request to include a bishop pushing a the swing.  However Fragonard insisted on replacing the bishop with the more traditional figure of the cuckholded husband.  

So let us examine the picture.  We see a young woman on a swing.  She is swinging with gay, if somewhat thoughtless, abandon as the sunlight beams down upon her.  She is at the apex of her arc and suddenly her shoe has flown off.  She has achieved this position due to the help afforded to her by the naive cleric (or cuckholded husband), on the right, who we can see pulling the swing rope.  On the left, lying on the ground below the swing, semi-concealed in the shrubbery,  is a young attentive male courtier who is staring at the long and exposed legs of the young woman.  Her legs are parted and with the motion of the swing, her skirt is open.  Not only are her legs exposed but the young man is able to see under the many petticoats that she is wearing under her pink flowing dress.  She knows he is watching her every move and is obviously pleased by this attention.   He reaches out as if to try and touch her. 

Fragonard once again made free association of fanciful costumes and provided us with a slight bit of erotic suggestions.  This work by Fragonard is without doubt erotic but does not actually cross the line to be viewed as vulgar.  There is a joyful aspect to this painting.  However the painting received mixed reviews with the artist being criticised for the frivolity of the picture and that he should show “a little more self-respect”.    The artist was unmoved by such disparagement and truth be told the popularity of his work continued.   His commissions came in thick and fast, both from wealthy patrons and from the royal government.   The royal patronage came to an end with their downfall during the French Revolution of 1789 and a year later Fragonard returned to his native Provence.  Two years later, he went back to live in Paris.  He died there in 1806 aged 74.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was born in Grasse, Provence and since 1926 the town has been the home of the very famous French Parfumerie Fragonard !!