Inside a lush garden, a young woman in a billowing pink gown glides through the air. Her suspension high above the ground is enabled by a swing consisting of a crimson velvet cushioned seat and a pair of ropes tied around the knobby branches of an enormous tree. On the far right, an older man seated on a stone bench helps operate the device. Using a series of connected ropes, he pulls the swing back to create the momentum necessary to propel the woman forward. As he releases the ropes, she leans back and extends her legs, expelling a tiny pink slipper from her pointed foot. The dainty shoe flies through the air toward a marble statue on the far left. At the base of the large pedestal supporting this sculpture lies a young man. Partially hidden by an overgrown rose bush, he peers wide-eyed up the open skirt of the swinging woman.This oil painting known as The Swing was created by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard sometime during 1767 and 1768. A gentleman of the court reportedly requested the painter represent his mistress being pushed on a swing as he secretly admired her from below. While the figures in the work are not identifiable as portraits of specific individuals, their rich attire and leisurely activity underline their aristocratic status.
Such playful and erotic scenes were popular among the elite clientele Fragonard served. Unlike large-scale history paintings, or the widely collected genres of portraiture and landscape, these works were relatively small (81 x 64.2 cm in the case of The Swing) and intended for display in intimate rooms known as cabinets. Admiring the painting in the privacy of such a space, the patron and his inner circle would have appreciated its depiction of societal norms subverted for the pursuit of personal pleasure. The work’s strong appeal led to the production of a printed version by Nicolas Delaunay in 1782, which circulated among a broader, though still elite, audience of collectors.
Play and pleasure
Swinging was one of several outdoor leisure activities common among elites in eighteenth-century France. Artists captured these popular games and pastimes in numerous works of art created for private patrons, such as two of Fragonard’s earlier paintings: Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw. The See-Saw‘s portrayal of a young woman gleefully raising her arms and legs as she is suspended in mid-air is a clear precedent for the pose of the main figure in The Swing. Both women recline back as they lift their arms nearly above their heads and kick one leg up, revealing the area beneath their skirts. Eighteenth-century audiences would have considered this uninhibited behavior quite indecent under ordinary circumstances. However, within the context of leisure activities, the period’s established rules of social etiquette were often bent.
Intimate garden-parks like the one depicted in The Swing were common sites for aristocratic leisure. These outdoor spaces were viewed as less formal than domestic interiors. Situated on the grounds of private country estates and pleasure pavilions, garden-parks provided a retreat from the strict regulations of elite society. Here, French nobles could fashion themselves as carefree shepherds or milkmaids, a role-playing game alluded to by the swinging woman’s straw hat. In addition, the hidden alcoves and secret corners within these asymmetrical gardens enabled men and women to mingle more freely and couples to sneak away unchaperoned. By juxtaposing various natural and man-made elements, Fragonard emphasizes the freedoms and restrictions French elites simultaneously experienced when playing in these spaces. While the fountains and trelliswork on the right suggest efforts to manipulate nature, the overgrown plants and abandoned rake in the foreground underline that the will of nature—like that of love—can never be fully constrained.
The left side of The Swing includes multiple references to untamed desire. Clearest among these is the swinging woman’s raised left leg, which lifts the hem of her skirt to reveal her curved right calf clad with a white stocking and pink garter. This flirtatious act signals her rejection of the traditional constraints of female modesty.
The heeled slipper that flies off her pointed foot leads our eyes to a marble statue of Cupid (the mythological god of erotic love) on the far left. Fragonard based this object on a well-known sculpture created by Etienne-Maurice Falconet in 1755 for King Louis XV’s former mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Both the painted and sculpted Cupid bring the index finger of one hand to their lips as they reach with the opposite hand to remove an arrow from their quivers. By showing the god facing the swinging woman as he makes this silencing gesture, Fragonard positions the two as confidants sharing a secret.
The subject of their deception is quickly discovered hiding in the rose bushes below. Here, a young man leans against the statue’s pedestal carved with images of dancing maenads. A seeming victim of the infatuation caused by Cupid’s arrow, his wide-eyed gaze and extended left arm turn our attention to the exposed legs of the woman. The layers of her skirt open like the petals of the blooming pink roses on the bush below, a visual connection that suggests her fertility rivals that of the garden itself.
These references to unbridled passion are balanced by symbols of constraint on the right side of the composition. Beside the garden’s trellis and fountain, the older man operating the swing is presumably the husband of the young woman. His smiling expression as he gazes at his wife suggests that he is blissfully unaware of her hidden lover. A series of looks and gestures connects the three figures, creating an inverted V-shape that visually reinforces their individual roles in this love triangle. The ropes the husband uses to pull his wife toward him resemble a set of reigns and are evocative of both the bonds of marriage and the restrictions placed on female sexuality during the period. The act of taming is further recalled by an adjacent sculpture of two putti riding a dolphin. While the winged bodies of these figures echo that of Cupid on the far left, the putto gazing at the swinging woman adopts a concerned rather than conspiratorial expression. Likewise, the yapping white dog (a common symbol of fidelity) at the husband’s feet seems to sound the alarm on the woman’s bawdy behavior. Contrasting with Cupid as secret-keeper, the barking dog threatens to expose the infidelity of its mistress.
The Rococo’s visual games
While works like The Swing would be critiqued as symbols of the moral decay of aristocratic culture, they were immensely popular during the eighteenth century. The appeal of these objects often categorized as Rococo art rested not only in their styles or subjects, which were exceptionally diverse, but also in their ability to engross viewers in visual games that comment on the nature of both art and humanity. The Swing draws us in through a mixture of visual humor, double entendre, and loaded symbols that reward close looking. Like the woman swinging back-and-forth, our attention is swiftly drawn between the many rich details sprinkled across the painted canvas. As our eyes move from one element to the next, we discover charged symbols like the abandoned rake or yapping dog and recognize familiar characters such as Cupid or the dancing maenads. We also uncover intriguing connections between the swinging woman and Venus (a companion of Cupid), Madame de Pompadour (patron of Falconet’s sculpture), or a blooming flower (like the pink rose adorning her lover’s jacket). These discoveries provide us with mental exhilaration meant to rival the physical thrill of riders on a swing. Like swingers flying through the air while tethered to a stable object, we are simultaneously free and supported as we explore the artist’s carefully constructed canvas.
Jennifer Milam, Fragonard’s Playful Paintings: Visual Games in Rococo Art (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006).
Marry Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).