Jean-Honore Fragonard has long been a favourite artist in my life… even since being a little girl, I adored his most famous painting, The Swing – which for me captured the spirit of romance in my innocence.
Fragonard was a French painter, born in 1732 (died in 1806). He is considered the ‘all-time master’ of French painting capturing the essence of the era through his beautiful and expressive paintings, alongside Francois Boucher. He painted over 550 pieces in his lifetime which don’t even include his sketches and etchings throughout his life.
He started his many years of training and education with painting alongside two incredible artists – Jean-Baptiste Chardin (considered as the master of still life during the 18th century) and Francois Boucher (a draughtsman, etcher and painter in the Rococo style). He developed his skills in painting to such a high standard that Boucher trusted him to paint replicas of his own work.
Later on in his life, he toured Rome studying its local scenery of romantic gardens, fountains, grottos, temples and terraces using local colours for his work. His painting continued to develop with looser and more expressive brush strokes but continuing to portray a fluid and romantic atmosphere. After returning to Paris, there was such a high demand for paintings centred on the theme of love – whether that was lustful, erotic or simply the intimacy of love. He had many commissions from the pleasure-loving wealthy of the court of Louis XV and provided an escape through his world of fantasy and pleasure.
The Swing, being his most well known painting was originally called The Happy Accidents of The Swing, painted in 1767. This miniature painting has continually fascinated me throughout my life. When I was a young girl and innocent, I didn’t really understanding the narrative behind the painting – I just considered it a beautiful and romantic painting! Little did I know then!
So, first of all, what is the painting all about? Well, it has been argued that the gentleman pulling and pushing the swing is the husband who has no idea that there is a man hiding amongst the bushes. He is the lover who is looking up her skirts. However the lady isn’t objecting to him being there and is, in fact encouraging the man by throwing her silk slipper high in the sky, revealing more to the onlooker below. It is a most scandalous painting… at the time, it was an indecency to even reveal your ankles let alone most of your legs. It raises questions about her relationship with her husband and what happened next…?! Did he find out or were the secret lovers constantly in the shadows, stealing kisses and scheming for the next moment they met.
Even with all of the scandal in the narrative, this painting would still have been an escapism for the royals and courtiers at a time of unrest. It wasn’t long when the French Revolution started paintings such as Fragonard’s offered a moment of rest bite and a moment to step into a fantasy world away from poverty, war and uncertainty.