The Art of Swinging According to Jean-Honoré Fragonard
On the 5th of April 1732, the French painter and printmaker Jean-Honoré Fragonard was born in Grasse, France. He was one of the greatest French painters in the two brilliant and productive pre-Revolution decades; although, due to his highly individual style, he was officially less recognised than, for example, his teacher, Boucher. In his work he focused mainly on large canvases with erotic themes, which he executed in an improvised Rococo manner. A very prolific painter (in his lifetime he produced over 550 paintings), after the Revolution he found himself in a very difficult position as the stern virtues of ancient Rome had become extolled again, and the fame and popularity of classical painters such as David pushed him to the margins of public interest. As a result of this, he died a poor man in 1806.
When talking of eighteenth-century erotic pictorial themes, one has to realise that they revolved around hidden meanings, symbolisms, sublime subtexts and contextual atmosphere. One such painting, the one Fragonard is mostly recognised for, is the 1767 The Swing. Funnily enough, the commission for the painting had been previously rejected by one of his contemporaries, Gabriel François Doyen. From the account of a conversation between Doyen and the writer Charles Collé, we learn about the circumstances in which Fragonard’s Swing originated. “”Would you believe,” the painter [Doyen] said to me [Collé], “that just a few days after the exhibition of my picture… in the Salon, a gentleman of the Court sent for me in order to commission a painting of the kind that I’ll describe? This gentleman was at his ‘pleasure house’ … with his mistress when I presented myself to find out what he wanted. 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,’ he continued, ‘to have you paint 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 this lovely girl, and better still, if you want to 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 be able 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.’ But since I was far from wanting to treat such a subject, which is so different from the genre in which I work, I referred this gentleman to M. Fagonat [sic], who has undertaken it and is at present making this singular work.”” (Donald Posner, The Swinging Woman of Watteau and Fragonard, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 1, Mar., 1982)
The subject, which for Doyen was probably too inappropriate, suited Fragonard perfectly. He executed the painting brilliantly, following all of his commissioner’s wishes. It reveals subtle erotic hints, the playfulness of love making, and conveys a much richer narrative than one would imagine at first sight. In fact,“…swinging in eighteenth-century French pictures, with relatively few exceptions, is associated with romantic or erotic feeling. Swinging was, of course, in real life one of the pastimes of young lovers, and it is easy to see that the passivity of the woman on the swing, and the control exercised by the man in initiating and continuing her ride made the image a natural metaphor for traditional courtship behavior.” (Posner) Only, in Fragonard’s Swing the woman is not passive at all; on the contrary – she teases and invites her secret lover into the act of forbidden lovemaking. Most provocatively, she allows him a glimpse of her legs, and probably, as suggested by the commissioner, “a little more”. On the other hand, her lover is not the one responsible for her swinging motion. He passively enjoys what she is willing to offer him. Also, the surroundings of the scene, rather unlikely and a bit dangerous to place a swing in, and the gloomy atmosphere of what seems to be evening time (whilst swinging was mostly associated with an open-day pastime), suggest the informal character of the dangerous liaison but also the tension and the growing excitement between the lovers. The cupid on the left-hand-side commands silence; his gesture suggests again that the affair is kept secret from the older man setting the swing in motion. The original idea of the commissioner was for the man in charge of the swing to be a bishop; however, it is difficult to confirm that the man in the background is in fact a bishop, as he does not wear the typical ecclesiastical attire. But probably due to this, the painting acquires a more general character, rather than that of a private joke. The two symbolic elements suggesting the pair’s involvement in the secret affair are the man’s hat, which in many eighteenth-century paintings covered not only the lover’s head but ‘something else as well’, and the woman’s shoe, flying off her foot freely towards her lover.
The theme of a swing was not exclusive to the eighteen-century painting. “Everywhere and always women and girls must have enjoyed the game of swinging, and they are seen on swings in pictures or statues made in ancient Crete and Greece, pre-Columbian Middle-America, the Near and Far East, and postmedieval Europe. … Some years ago Hans Wentzel made a survey of swinging scenes in Western art. He noted that they virtually disappeared during the medieval and Renaissance periods, when they could not be absorbed very usefully into the realms of religious and philosophical imagery that dominated those times. After some antique examples of the theme, he found none dating before the seventeenth century, when swinging reappears, but mainly in prints and, almost always, in emblematic contexts. These works were not meant to convey the pleasures of the sport. Instead, they show it in order to symbolize one of various things or qualities: for example, the element of air…, in which swinging takes place; or, because it is an aimless activity that produces nothing tangible, “idleness”; or again, because it involves constant going back and forth, “inconstancy” or “fickleness.”” (Posner). However, in popular consciousness the theme of swinging remains mostly associated with love, signifying not only the love-game between the two sexes but also the instability of the feeling as such. Only, nowadays the roles of the person on the swing and the person in charge of the swing would not have to be as precisely ascribed as in the eighteenth century.