The Swing by Fragonard. The central masterpiece of the Rococo era

Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Swing. 
Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Swing. 1767. The Wallace Collection, London.

You dont always feel like watching insightful paintings. Sometimes you want something light and airy. Lets say, an art dessert. Like marshmallows with creme brulee flavor. Or whipped cream with berry syrup.

Of course, the most dessert paintings works in the Rococo style. And the most famous of them is the Swing by JeanHonore Fragonard (1732-1806). A girl in a peach dress look like a strawberry on a bouffant meringue and cream cake.

What is FragonardSwing so precious?

You shouldnt treat the Swing as a sheer decorationIndeed, a couple of years ago I could only snort when seeing Rococo paintings, considering them empty and not worth my attention.

Its important to put everything in context. And the Swing is an artistic response to the mores of 18th-century French society.

Which means that the painting can be interesting at least as a witness of what was going on in the heads of aristocracy of those days.

We can blame them for shallowness of their interests. For being too focused on flirting. On the excessive decorations.

Let alone the moral liberty, when having a lover was not only normal, but almost shame on those who dont have one.

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The Swing and the Rococo phenomenon

You cant deny that the Rococo phenomenon is uniqueIt was preceded by the Baroque era. It was from it that Rococo inherited pomp, detail, and emotion.

But Rococo exaggerated all this and made it absolutely cute and mawkish. Emotions went downjust like details. And bright colors became lighter, turning into such as shades as the color excited Venuship or the Gray flax color  endless love.

Oh, how sugary it is! Something tells me that if you dont like sweets, you dont like Rococo.

And it is only 200 years after the Renaissance era! When spiritual enlightenment, wide readingand wise actions and words were above anything else.

Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Bolt.
Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Bolt. 1779. The Louvre, Paris.

How different a human can be! When values and tastes can change so rapidly. And they would change. The Rococo era (in France) would be blown away by the revolution in the late 18th century.

Meanwhileall the Rococo philosophy can be found in FragonardSwing.

The Swings plain plot

beautiful, sweet girl is being swung by an elderly spouse. A young, rosy-cheeked admirer is hiding ecstatically in a rosehip bush. After all, hes enjoying such a piquant view.

The lady has no objections, on the contrary, she raises her foot even higher so that the shoe has flown in an unknown direction.

Meanwhile, the husband has no idea that his wife is already playing him false in her thoughts. And she is obviously not behaving like a virtuous lady.

And who can do without ancient gods? After all, morals were even worse in Ancient Rome.

Opposite the young lady, there is Falcones statue of the Threatening Cupid. With one hand, he makes a gesture looking either like Tut-tut or Shh. But with his right hand, he is reaching for the arrows in his quiver. Going to shoot the intended victim.

A sting in FragonardSwing

It seems that the painting is full of idleness and frivolity. But frankly speaking, Im confused by the garden where the events take place. An old, gnarled tree witextremely crooked, even ugly branches resembles more of cracks.

Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Swing. 
Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Swing. 1767. The Wallace Collection, London.

The green leaves swirl so heavily, as if everything us happening in an impassable thicket, not in a garden. The trees build up such a dense crown that its very dark inside the paintingbut for the gap in the middle, which the young lady on the swing were caught in.

Why did Fragonard choose these surroundings? Why not to paint a classic French garden with clipped trees, where everything is lit by the sunlight?

A wild forest painted by Fragonards teacher Francois Boucher looks more well-kept than this park.

Francois Boucher. Jupiter and Callisto.
Francois Boucher. Jupiter and Callisto. 1744. The Pushkin state museum of fine arts, Moscow.

It looks as if Fragonard was trying to reduce the excessive sweetness. Make the painting mean something more than just decorative candy for the eye.

Perhaps Fragonarrealized that such behavior, be it never so welcomed by the society, wouldntreally make anyone happy. And even now, the clouds are gathering around the girl intending to put horns on her spouse. Darkness is creeping to all three of them.

Nofor nothing the Swing has become a cult paintingWhen it comes to the Rococo era, it is the one most remembered work. Probably, it is due to the fact that its not as shallow as most of the paintings of second-rate artists.

The Fate of FragonardSwing

The Rococo era will instantly collapse under pressure of the revolution that had absolutely different demands for art. And people like Fragonard would have a hard time. He would die in poverty, completely forgotten.

And his Swing would hang in one private collection after another. And only in 1900 it would be shown to the public in a London gallery, in the Wallace Collection.

By then, the revolution would be a thing of the past. And the painting would very well fit into the kindred art nouveau periodDO you remember, this is about numerous flowers, curls and pretty girls?

Alphonse Mucha. Reverie. Color lithography.
Alphonse Mucha. Reverie. Color lithography. 1897. Private collection.

Another whirl of sweetness and decorativeness before another shock. Art nouveau would also be quickly destroyed by the pressure of the 20th-century world wars.

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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