Jean-Honor Fragonard was a pupil of Chardin and Boucher. The experienced he got from these artists contributed to his achievement of the Prix de Rome in 1750s. According to Wildenstein (2005), Fragonard was heavily influenced by Baroque and Tiepolo styles.
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However, he was among the classical artists who turned to Rocco style sometimes in the 1770s (Sheriff, 2010). Arguably, his work ‘The Swing’ exhibits one of the best examples of Rocco paintings developed in the 1700s. This painting is an example of some of the paintings in this genre that portray the intensive theme of controversial love and romance.
Critical analysis of the painting
The painting portrays a mistress being swung back and forth by her elderly husband and a young man hiding in the bushes. The woman seems to notice the presence of the young man in the bushes, but the husband does not. As the woman swings towards the young man, she opens up her legs to give him a good glimpse of the area under her dress. She is wearing a shepherd’s hat and a large skirt under which many petticoats are visible.
Her clothes have bright colors, with a mixture of white, red, orange and some few patches of blue. The men, trees, bushes, two cherubs, and a Cupid are in the painted dark. The color differences give the painting a point of contraction between the woman and other details. Also, the artists have used the effects of light and shade.
The woman’s clothes and face are illuminated while the ground area, the men and the trees around are dark (Farber, 2006). In the background, light penetrates between the trees and illuminates the swinging woman. It appears that the position of the event is somewhere in the bushes, which indicates the possibility that the swinging is an activity of marital leisure.
The painting has a dimension of 64.2 by 81 cm and is displayed ay Wallace Connection, London. It was developed using ‘oil on canvas’ and portrays romantic games and sports of the 17th and 18th centuries (Cuzin, 2009).
An in-depth analysis of the painting reveals that Fragonard had more than one social and religious theme. First, it portrays the theme of individual freedom. This freedom is both physical and emotional. For instance, the woman is experiencing free childlike movements on the swing, giving her some physical freedom. Also, freedom is emotional because it shows the strong relationship between the two lovers.
The freedom allows the two lovers to shed constraints of love by enjoying life in a simple manner. It is also worth noting that the woman has released her shoe, which is an indication of the degree of mental freedom she enjoys when swinging.
However, a deeper analysis of the painting reveals some additional themes. For instance, the woman notices the presence of a young man peeping at her as she swings freely. She is a woman of dignity and class, as signified by her clothing. She is opening up her legs to allow the young man to peep under her dress. It appears that she is enjoying every moment of the young man’s presence.
According to Bremmer (2011), the young man must have been the woman’s secret lover. This is an irony because women of her status were expected to live and behave in a dignitary and respectful manner. Adultery was considered a social and religious sin, especially among the people of her class. In this painting, there is irony because the woman, despite being older, enjoys the young man’s admiration of the beauty in her private parts.
The theme of conspiracy is portrayed in the painting because the elderly husband, who is most likely a bishop, is busy making his wife feel loved, appreciated, and comfortable. On her part, the woman is just misusing the man’s love, dedication, and physical energy to expose her body to the young man.
It appears that the young man and the mistress had planned for his secret presence. In normal circumstances, especially in 18th-century societies, such a childish play would have been held in private, and no intruder would have been present. The presence of the young man indicates that the woman had informed and asked him to hide near the position to let him see what he admired in her.
Also, there is a religious aspect of the event. While the humans think that they are alone in the bushes, the artist allows the audience to see additional beings. Fragonard uses two cherubs below the swing as an indication of the presence of unseen beings concerned with the disgusting actions of the people above them (Ingamells, 2009).
One of these inanimate objects is looking at the mistress in apprehension while the other seems to be scowled by the act. Also, there is a Cupid on the left side of the woman, which is shown raising its finger. The artist used this figure as an indication of the secretive and romantic nature of the swinging affair and conspiracy within.
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The swinging affair is also symbolism- it symbolizes the possible illicit sexual affair in the marriage. The man seems to be dedicated to making his wife happy. However, the presence of the young man and the woman’s knowledge of his presence indicate that the two must have been in an illicit sexual and romantic affair before the event.
It may also show that the woman and the young man are planning to start an illicit affair because the area under the dress seems to move the young man with admiration. It may indicate that the event was set by the woman as a way of enticing the young man into an illicit sexual affair.
Fragonard is excellent in mixing erotic and romantic sense with an appreciation of nature. While the swinging affair is an erotic and romantic event, the audience can appreciate the natural objects around the individuals. For instance, the trees, flowers on the ground, and the light penetrating between the branches are natural and appreciable.
Bremmer, J. (2011). From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. London: Routledge.
Cuzin, J. (2009). Jean-Honore Fragonard Life and Work. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Farber, A. (2006). Fragonard’s the Happy Accidents of the Swing. Oneonta, NY: State University of New York
Ingamells, J. (2009). The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Pictures, Vol III, French before 1815. London: The Wallace Collection
Sheriff, M. D. (2010). Fragonard. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 9.
Wildenstein, G. (2005). The Paintings of Fragonard. Washington, DC: Phaidon.