Why Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo Masterpiece, The Swing, Is Less Innocent Than It First Appears

If you were to see Jean-Hon­oré Frag­o­nard’s L’Escar­po­lette, or The Swing, at the Wal­lace Col­lec­tion, you might not think par­tic­u­lar­ly hard about it. Though all the sub­tle light effects that make the young woman in pink pop out of the lush gar­den that sur­rounds her are impres­sive, grant­ed — and they’ve become even more so since the paint­ing’s recent restora­tion — there does­n’t seem to be much else of inter­est at first glance. But take a sec­ond glance, and you may well get a sense of what, back in the sev­en­teen-six­ties, made this com­mis­sion “so raunchy, many artists would­n’t have done it for all the mon­ey in the world.”

So says the nar­ra­tor of the Art Deco video above, which promis­es an expla­na­tion of why The Swing “isn’t as inno­cent as it seems.” Take, for exam­ple, the young man reclin­ing in the can­vas low­er-left cor­ner, whose ecsta­t­ic expres­sion can per­haps be explained by what’s entered his line of sight. But “for­get about the fact that he can see up her skirt: her ankle is show­ing, a very erot­ic ges­ture at the time.”

All of this inten­si­fies when we know the sto­ry behind the paint­ing, and specif­i­cal­ly that “the man who com­mis­sioned the paint­ing is the man in the bush, and he’s also the wom­an’s lover, not her hus­band.” Is her hus­band the old­er fel­low crouched in the oppo­site cor­ner, clutch­ing the swing’s reins? Per­haps, but like any piece of art worth regard­ing, this one leaves room for inter­pre­ta­tion.

Still, if you under­stand some­thing of the mores of its time and place, there’s no mis­tak­ing its tit­il­lat­ing intent. None of Frag­o­nard’s con­tem­po­raries could have imag­ined that this paint­ing would one day hang in a pub­lic gallery for all the world to see, com­mis­sioned as it was for dis­play only in a pri­vate home. Many paint­ings were in the time of Roco­co, “a style of art that comes out of the Baroque,” as art his­to­ri­an Steven Zuck­er says in the Smarthis­to­ry video just above, which despite hav­ing “jet­ti­soned the seri­ous­ness, the moral­i­ty” of its pre­de­ces­sor, nev­er­the­less retained “a sense of ener­gy, a sense of move­ment.” The Swing remains “a per­fect expres­sion of the friv­o­li­ty, the lux­u­ry, and the indul­gence of the Roco­co” — and a reminder, as the Art Deco video puts it, that “what­ev­er hap­pens in the mys­ti­cal gar­den, stays in the mys­ti­cal fairy gar­den.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Scan­dalous Paint­ing That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Art: An Intro­duc­tion to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

What Makes Vermeer’s The Milk­maid a Mas­ter­piece?: A Video Intro­duc­tion

When John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” Scan­dal­ized the Art World in 1884

Why Does This Lady Have a Fly on Her Head?: A Curi­ous Look at a 15th-Cen­tu­ry Por­trait

Gus­tav Klimt’s Icon­ic Paint­ing The Kiss: An Intro­duc­tion to Aus­tri­an Painter’s Gold­en, Erot­ic Mas­ter­piece (1908)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Terry Walsh says:

    Not sure most view­ers ever saw this piece as ‘inno­cent’. Apart from the (clichéd) Cupid stat­ue, there are two lit­tle cupids just behind the young woman. Why two, you might ask? Each one rep­re­sents a love inter­est and while one male observ­er is osten­si­bly con­trol­ling the swing, the oth­er is, arguably, ben­e­fit­ting more from it! And, why a swing, any­way? Think ‘metaphor’.

  • pat says:

    Also, UNDERWEAR did­n’t exist yet, as we know it. just a short chemise under her stays.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.