This has always been one of my favorite 18th-century paintings. In fact, I was introduced to it when Maestro Frank Salazar gave me an assignment to write a paper drawing comparisons between it and Franz Josef Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. I no longer have that paper, but I got an A.
Fragonard, a pupil of Chardin and Boucher (another favorite of mine), started his professional life in Italy, where he developed a particular admiration for the late Baroque style, mainly specializing in large historical paintings. When he returned to Paris, he quickly turned toward the more erotic subjects which were the current fashion. His other paintings from this time are The See-Saw, Blindman’s Bluff, The Stolen Kiss and The Meeting, but The Swing is probably his most famous (and erotic) work.
When it first appeared, it was an immediate success, not because of its artistic and technical excellence, but because of the scandal it created. It was at first commissioned of a different painter, but he refused to do it. Thus it came to Fragonard. At first glance, The Swing appears to simply evoke the spirit of frivolity that was so present in during the Ancien Regime, but let’s look more closely.
- The theme is that of love and the rising tide of passion, as suggested by the sculpture in the lower center of the picture. The dolphins driven by cupids drawing the water-chariot of Venus are symbols of the impatient surge of love.
- Next, we have the gentleman who is lying in the rose bush, looking up at the lady in the swing. Historically, we know that this is the man who initially commissioned the painting, although his name is unknown. He was at one time thought to have been the Baron de Saint-Julien, the Receiver General of the French Clergy, who asked that he be depicted as the voyeur in the painting. The look of rapture on his face is due to the view to which he is being treated – right up the lady’s skirt! To understand this rapture you must know that in the 18th century, women wore no bloomers or knickers, only a panier and petticoat, and stockings that were held up with delicate ribbons. In a word, Monsieur is getting an eyeful; he is literally gasping with anticipation!
- The bush (a tangle of roses) is a symbol of the lady’s own “secret garden”, a private place as it is enclosed by little fences (indeed!), but the gentleman has at last found his way to it.
- Thrilling to the sight now offered him, he reaches out with hat in hand. A hat in 18th-century erotic imagery covered not only the head but also another part of the male body when inadvertently exposed.
- The feminine counterpart to the hat is the shoe that flies off of the lady’s pretty foot to be caught by Cupid, who vows to keep this scene absolutely secret. In French paintings of the period, a naked foot and lost shoe often accompany the more familiar broken pitcher as a symbol of lost virginity. And whether or not Disney understood this (one thinks that he did not), this is indeed the symbolism of Cinderella's lost slipper.
- We know by the clothing worn by the gentleman who is pushing the swing that he is a bishop. Ah-ha! The painting seems to cry out, “You can look, but you cannot touch!” And who is truly the voyeur -- the gentleman, or the bishop?
- Initially, the lady in the swing was the mistress of the original commissioner of the painting, and these erotic symbols would lie bloodless on the canvas had not Fragonard charged the scene with the amorous ebullience and joy of an impetuous surrender to love. In a shimmer of leaves and rose petals, lit up by a sparkling beam of sunshine, the lady, in a frothy dress of cream and juicy pink, rides the swing with happy, thoughtless abandon. Her legs parted, her skirts open; the gentleman in the bush, hat off with arm erect, lunges towards her. Suddenly, as she reaches the peak of her ride, her shoe flies off. Très charmant!
Instead of the Surprise Symphony, I suggest you listen to the slow movement of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto while perusing this delightful painting.
Then take a cold shower.