Friday, 22 November 2013
THE SWING: JEAN-HONORE FRAGONARD
The Swing, or The Happy Accidents of the Swing was painted in 1767 by Jean-Honore Fragonard. It is painted in the Rococo style, an iconic piece of frothy boudoir chic; which quite intentionally takes the privacy of the inside space – a woman’s bedroom – to the out of doors space, where there are flashes of danger and anything can happen.
Commissioned by the notorious French libertine Baron de St. Julien as a portrait of his mistress, The Swing was to be painted to the following specificity: "I should like you to paint Madame seated on a swing being pushed by a Bishop."
While this odd request was turned down by other painters such as Gabriel François Doyen, a painter of more serious historical subjects, Fragonard leapt to the occasion, producing what became the most iconic work of the French Rococo.
In the foreground the playboy Baron himself is depicted, reclining in the lush shrubbery, one arm outstretched towards the woman’s skirts, his other arm holding his balance. He gave very specific instructions to Fragonard, stating "Place me in a position where I can observe the legs of that charming girl."
Not only can the Baron see the woman’s shapely legs, his gaze is fixed onto what he can see between her soft, plump thighs and that makes the image highly arousing. The viewer knows that the woman is deliberately exposing her fat, moist genitalia to her lover.
His mistress flies through the air on a sylvan swing, the lovely young woman giving herself away to frivolous abandon, her shoe flying off in the heat of the moment.
In the background of the composition one can see what was originally going to be the Bishop, requested by the Baron, but which was changed to the mistress's husband by Fragonard. The husband plays a lesser role, being immersed in shadow while the Baron is illuminated under the woman’s dress.
The inanimate objects add to the narrative. Two cherubs below the swing appear concerned by the sordid actions of the humans above them, one looking up at the women in trepidation and the other looking away from the action with a scowl. On the left side of the image is a stone statue of Cupid who raises a finger to his lips to point out the secretive nature of the impending affair.
The Swing, rich with symbolism, not only manages to capture a moment of complete spontaneity and joie de vivre, but also alludes to the illicit affair that may have already been going on, or is about to begin.
The painting draws on fetish to flesh out the narrative. The Baron is a voyeur feasting on the moment of frivolity. Maybe the husband is aroused by his wife’s lewd behaviour and enjoying her exposing herself to another man, or maybe the husband, exerting himself pushing the weight of his bride on the swing does not have a clue about what is really going on; secrecy that idea is a fetish too. The secret is part of the erotic journey.
The woman herself is an exhibitionist enjoying being the focus of male appreciation. And we are voyeurs too spying on their moment of titivation.
The young woman is the main focus of the painting, delicious in her froth of pink silk, poised mid-air tantalizingly beyond the reach of both her elderly husband and her excited young lover.
The woman’s slipper, which flies off her foot as she swings so easily, is another playful touch which helps accentuate the erotic subject matter, as well as providing a visual focus in the splash of sunlight.
One of Fragonard's first teachers, Francois Boucher seems to have made an impression on the young painter; this can be seen this erotic confection.
Boucher specialized in the combination of the pastoral scene with a passionate sensibility. While originally commissioned to paint mythological scenes, Fragonard had a knack for turning them into boudoir scenes in the open air and this provocative sensibility is reflected in The Swing.
Always a fan of the Dutch Masters, the inspiration that Rubens provides is clear in this portrait with its attention to detail, loose fluid brushwork, and the uncaring attitude to the convention of the narrative.
In addition, the Dutch of this time period were notorious for their inclusion of small symbolic items, which appear in The Swing in the case of the embracing putti and Cupid with his finger over his lips, to symbolize the secrecy of the affair. These are all reminiscent of earlier works by Rubens.
Fragonard painted The Swing with the intention of flattering the Baron and his mistress, to supply them with a lighthearted, frivolous painting and to provide an intimate memento of their relationship. To this end, he utilized only the finest of the Rococo techniques.
The Swing is composed in a triangular shape, with the Baron and the husband forming the base of the pyramid, and the woman in the air at the top of the triangle, in the center of the space.
She is illuminated by the soft lighting coming from above, and the fanciful trees form an oval frame for the action in the center.
Fragonard includes a number of hidden details within the composition to heighten the message of playful love, including two putti embracing, a stone lap dog and dolphin, and a stone statue of Cupid.
Considered to be Fragonard's most successful painting, the Swing stands alone today as an emblem of Rococo art. The combination of insouciant attitude, naughty eroticism, faded pastel swirls and pastoral scenery creates an irresistible testament to the beauty of youth and illegitimate affairs. In prerevolutionary France adultery is but a playful contrivance to pass the time.
There are a number of copies of the Swing – none by Fragonard. You can see The Swing in the Wallace collection which is conveniently located in Central London, just a few minutes walk from Oxford Street, Baker Street and Marylebone Village.
This blog post has been put together using sources from the web.