1700 – 1800
Age of Enlightenment

Fragonard's The Swing

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

The Beginnings of Rococo
In the early years of the 1700s, at the end of the reign of Louis XIV (who dies in 1715), there was a shift away from the classicism and "Grand Manner" (based on the art of Poussin) that had governed the art of the preceding 50 years, toward a new style that we call Rococo.Versailles was abandoned by the aristocracy, who once again took up residence in Paris. A shift away from the monarchy, toward the aristocracy characterizes this period.

What kind of lifestyle did the aristocracy lead during this period? Remember that the aristocracy had enormous political power as well as enormous wealth. Many chose leisure as a pursuit and became involved themselves in romantic intrigues. Indeed, they created a culture of luxury and excess that formed a stark contrast to the lives of most people in France. The aristocracy, only a small percentage of the population of France, owned over 90% of its wealth. A small, but growing middle class does not sit still with this for long (remember the French Revolution of 1789).

Fragonard, The Swing, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)

Fragonard's The Swing
As with most Rococo paintings, the subject of Fragonard's The Swing is not very complicated! Two lovers have conspired to get this older fellow to push the youg lady in the swing while her lover hides in the bushes. Their idea is that as she goes up in the swing, she can part her legs, and he can get a perfect view up her skirt.

They are surrounded by a lush, over grown garden. A sculptured figure to the left puts his fingers to his mouth, as though saying "hush," while another sculpture in the background has two cupid figures cuddled together. The colors are pastel -- pale pinks and greens, and although we have a sense of movement and a prominent diagonal line -- the painting lacks all of the seriousness of a baroque painting.

Fragonard, The Swing, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)If you look really closely you can see the loose brushstrokes in the pink silk dress, and as she opens her legs, we get a glimpse of her garter belt. It was precisely this kind of painting that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were soon to condemn. They demanded a new style of art, one that showed an example of moral behavior, of human beings at their most noble.

Your Comments (16)

Previous Comments

Allen Farber wrote on Saturday, October 24, 2009

I have been struck by the compositional similarity of Fragonard's lovers in the Happy Accidents of the Swing to Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. The lover hiding in the bushes is in a pose strikingly similar to Adam. Whereas Adam is brought to life by the hand and mind of God the Father, the lover in the Fragonard is aroused by the vision up the skirts of his mistress. The divine love that is the focus of the Michelangelo is countered by the sexual love of the Fragonard.

Allison wrote on Thursday, March 10, 2011

When I had originally learnt about this painting, I was told that the man pushing the swing was a Bishop which makes the painting that much more sinister. That being said Fragonard depicts women as conniving (getting the bishop to partake in a perverted act). Around the 1700s women were being depicted as object that men sought after to indulge in pleasure and this painting just reasserts that notion. Perhaps Fragonard is alluding to sexual connotation with the overgrown greenery in the garden.

Kenny wrote on Sunday, March 27, 2011

Instead of a bee's hive, I always thought the two putti were sitting on a fish, the symbol of Venus - referencing how she was born. The dark circle is one of the fish’s eye and the putti are holding onto a head fin, this is an odd looking fish with big lips. I had never seen the dog though and love the fidelity symbol barking at the two and being hushed by cupid - I always wondered why he wasn’t hushing us. That makes more sense. Thanks for another great discussion.

Inez wrote on Monday, April 18, 2011

I think you are right about the fish, Kenny. It looks like the dolphins in the Raphael fresco of Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome.

Sophie wrote on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Though the above text from Smarthistory emphasises the conspiratorial nature of the two lovers, I'm not so sure. The male lover is holding up his hat nearly in his line of sight to between the girls legs. While his blushing pink face betrays the fact that he didn't quite block his own view, the fact that he appears to attempt at all suggests that he was not expecting to be flashed in such an overtly sexual manner. Perhaps it was the girl's decision alone to open her swinging legs and shock her unsuspecting yet overly joyed lover. It could be a commentary by Fragonard about the changing gender roles of the time, how women were perhaps becoming progressively more sexually agressive or active. Of course, nothing here is for sure, but just thought it was interesting.

Isaac wrote on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fragonard's portrayal of nature, in my opinion, goes a little deeper than just symbolizing the fertility and natural sensuality of this scene. It really stuck out for me that the people and man-made objects (like the sculptures) are in one orthogonal line, while the light illuminating the forest forms an almost perpendicular line. For me, this symbolized the stark divide between the natural world and the human world; even though this scene takes place in a garden, the people disregard and even trample the plants around them (like the lover in the rose bushes), implying a general disregard for the well-being of the natural world and a human tendency to assume dominance over it.

Madison wrote on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The thing that I really enjoy about this painting is that you have to take a moment to examine it before you can understand the story behind it. Because the bright pink dress attracts our immediate attention, we focus on her first and, at first glance, assume that she's just an innocent young aristocrat enjoying an afternoon of frivolity. Yet our eyes are soon drawn through the line of the painting towards her lover and then over to the uncomfortable and somewhat sinister-looking bishop on the right, and we realize that the piece is really one filled with sensuality and suggestion.

Nicole wrote on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I’m particularly struck by the sexual stereotypes indicated by the work. The painting demonstrates the religiously influenced sexism of the time in the perception of women as temptresses, no matter how unwitting. Both male subjects of this painting have been lured and caught by the charms of the young woman. On one hand is the Bishop who, despite his dignified profession, is unabashedly enjoying himself in luxury and frivolity. On the other hand, we are presented with the young lover who, notwithstanding his reluctant pose (bending as if to tear himself away) cannot help but gaze rapturously at the bared legs of his lover. For me, the girl’s pose is almost reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec’s brazen “Jane Avril,” although her look is much more steadfast and joyful. While this might place the girl in the position of power for the moment, it indicates a distrust of women in general that is the reason behind the bigotry that feminism has railed so long against.

Freddy wrote on Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The combatting implications between the dog and the cupid structure on the left side of the painting suggest a tension within the circumstances of the painting. Many factors of the painting, including the pink dress, suggest a notion of lavish leisure and aristocracy. However, the level of secrecy and deception taking place in the painting suggests that even though aristocrats enjoy their wealth, they can also feel the need to escape the restrictions of upper class standards. The lady is in motion away from the older man in the back right. She is moving toward her lover in the bushes, implying that her hormones are getting the better of her and her sense of social barriers has been broken. In conclusion, I sense a certain amount of edginess and almost suspense in the painting that I had not sensed before.

Lindsay wrote on Monday, September 05, 2011

The most interesting part of the painting to me, is the woman trying to move towards a more sensual era, but being pulled back by religion. As the speakers touched on, the man in the right corner, a bishop, has a visual line connecting to the man in the left corner. With the man in the left corner being highlighted more than the bishop, it implies that the woman is moving into a more sensual era and away from religion. The two men are on the same plane directly across from each other to imply that she has to choose between the two of them. She can’t have both religion and a sensual relationship. And although she is being flirtatious with the man in the light, almost leaning more towards this sensual era, she is still being tied back by the bishop who holds the ropes of the swing, not allowing her to move towards this new era.

Taylor wrote on Monday, September 05, 2011

What draws me in the most to this painting is the pastel color choice. It seems to promote a sense of mystical powers and other worldly lust. Fragonard uses rich color hues to contrast with the pale pink of the female’s dress in order to suggest the lust of the forbidden forests. The darkness of the unexplored forest, as seen in the upper right hand corner of the painting, implies the feeling of raw and primal emotions. They are away from the strict bounds of society in the forest, and this woman can openly flirt with this man's sexual desires. The extreme lights and darks of the piece also suggest some of the ideals of the time period. The darkness is unexplored by man, similar to how the Enlightenment period is all about discovering the unknown.

Bailey wrote on Monday, September 05, 2011

This an extremely dynamic painting that suggests aristocratic nature through the use of color, lighting, and the painting style. The greenery in the painting reflects a more relaxed handling of the brush versus the brushwork used in describing the dress, it is detailed and more specific in portraying the texture and layers of the dress. This expresses a greater regard for the lavish clothing which would make sense because the Rococo style puts a great emphasis on frolicsome behavior, and implied humour and sexuality. The lighting conveniently shines in a diagonal suggestion from the top left corner to the bottom right, encompassing the central figure the woman focusing must of the viewers attention on her. The array of colors evokes many different visual reactions, keeping your eyes moving throughout the painting so they are not fixated on just the woman, they also support the idea of bountiful and flamboyant behavior and lifestyle of the aristocrats. The body language in this painting, with the man playfully putting up his hat as if to shield himself from her femine legs peeking out from beneath her dress, and her shoe being kicked off with carefree whimsical actions, suggests that the main character in this piece do not care much what society would think of their behavior. Also, every single figure has their total and complete attention on the women, the putti, both men, and the statue all have given her their full attention. This suggests another message portrayed in the painting and that is that during this time period aristocrats were living carefree, opulent lives, and thus they have the attention of all that are in their presence, this is very apparent in this painting.

Elyse wrote on Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The idea that the nature, which encompasses the whole composition of the painting, is wild truly captures the complicated message Fragonard wished to portray. The swing literally allows the woman to swing back and forth between the bishop and her lover implying that she is crossing social and moral boundaries of the late 18th century. At this moment in time, the woman toys with her lover as she is seen above him and kicking her shoe off playfully. The expression on the lover's face also gives the viewer the sense that he knows he is indulging in behavior that deserves shushing from the statue on the left. The wild bushes overtaking the space around the lover, almost engulfing him in foliage, show that he is a symbol of rebellion and something not seen as socially acceptable. On the other side of the woman is the bishop who is continuing to reel her back into his realm of morality and proper behavior of the time with the ropes of the swing. This thought leads me to disagree with the statement that the bishop doesn't know the lover is luring the woman into the bushes. The constant swinging motion makes him take the reins and continue to bring her back to him, as the natural forces of love and desire repeatedly bring her back to the lover time and time again. Though Fragonard depicts just one complicated set of relationships in the painting, it foreshadows and represents the complications of sexuality and what society is willing to accept from women.

Virginia wrote on Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I find Fragonard's use of nature to convey the sexual implications of this painting's subject matter extremely effective. The numerous depictions of roses, some more obvious than others, highlight the anticipation behind the girl's metaphorical

Rachel wrote on Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The lighting of this painting immediately draws the viewer's eyes to the woman in the middle. The diagonal lines of the painting then draw the viewer's eyes to the man on the left and then over to the man on the right to complete a triangle of these three people. The two men are connected by the woman as she is swinging back and forth between them. The way she tosses off her shoe, however, shows her inclination to this man on the left who seems to be her lover. This man is surrounded by overgrown bushes, showing a lack of boundaries. The man on the right, however, is in a more empty, clear-cut area. These two men are contrasted and the lover seems to represent a wild playfulness, while the man on the right seems to provoke the thought of a dark, clearly-bounded world. I also think the light of the painting illuminates the luxuries of the woman's clothing and her playfulness. I think the untamed, organic bushes do portray fertility, but I believe they also represent how these members of the aristocracy were going outside of the accepted boundaries and being in a sense untamed.

Asad Jaleel wrote on Monday, December 17, 2012

Rachel's suggestion is insightful. The shoe toss serves as a signal between the lovers. She wants him to catch the shoe and return it to her. But I disagree with the claim that the forest represents sexuality. After all, the swing requires a tree. And the darkness of the forest facilitates this scheme of hiding and meeting secretly.

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Where and When

Rococo<br>Fragonards The Swing
Paris, France
1767
This work is an open educational resource and This work is licensed under a Creative Common Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.