The Not-So-Subtle Art of the Rococo
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
What: The Swing
Who: Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Where: The Wallace Collection, London, UK.
How: Oil on canvas
Hello and welcome back to Carivaggio. Today we are starting to expand our timeline, and will look at a painting from the 18th century.
The Swing is a most delightful painting. The soft colors blend into themselves creating a world entirely separate from our own. The young woman joyfully swings and loses her shoe. It is all such an innocent and pleasing scene. Or is it? Something terribly frivolous lies beneath the surface this of work, and it really boils down to one thing: sex...
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1723-1806) was a prolific French painter active in the last decade of the Ancien Régime (the social and political system in France from the Late Middle Ages to the French Revolution is 1789). Famous for his heightened Rococo style, he painted over 550 paintings during his lifetime - only 5 of which are dated. He is most famous for his genre paintings (genre paintings are works which depict scenes of every day life) in the French Court. Fragonard studied art at the French Academy in Rome, and while traveling in Italy, he absorbed the country's romanticism. Fragonard returned to France and had a difficult time cultivating private patrons because of the French Revolution. Although a wonderfully skilled painter, when he died, he was almost completely forgotten. It was ultimately his impact on the Impressionist painters of the 19th century that revived his work. His bright palette, use of brushstrokes, and incorporation of light had a huge impact on the works of Impressionists.
Now that we have a little bit of background on the artist, we have to talk a little bit about the style of the painting. This work was following the 18th century Rococo style. Rococo, or the Late Baroque style, is a highly ornamental, highly decorative, theatrical style of art, architecture, and furniture. For example (as you know) Caravaggio painted in the Baroque style, which was highly emotional and often exaggerated. The Rococo is just a step up from that. Its work will be extremely over the top and aesthetically intricate. Fragonard's work is a perfect example of a classic Rococo painting.
The painting was commissioned by Baron de St. Julien as a portrait of his mistress - the theme was rejected by several other painters but Fragonard jumped at the chance to use his Rococo skills to send a message about the French Court.
As we always do here on Carivaggio, let us conduct a visual analysis.
The first thing that stands out is the overwhelmingly rich color palette. The depth of the greenery highlights the sweet pink of the swinger's dress. Speaking of greenery, notice how the picture is framed by the thickness and lushness of the trees. It is almost like we are in the thick of the forest- hidden away from the frivolity of the court. Or so we think. An abundance of greenery and flowers was often used as a symbol of fertility and femininity. So we know that the work is about something sexual or erotic right off the bat.
Let's talk about the figures. We see a women of the court, dressed beautifully in her pale pink dress, swinging innocently between two men- the man in the background is holding onto the ropes of the swing, the other impatiently waiting to catch her.
The woman is dressed in a pretty pale pink gown. Her cheeks are rosy and her lips are softly smiling. She seems innocent enough. What is so shocking about this piece is that you can see her skin right above her stocking! That tiny showing of skin, seemingly unnoticeable until you get up-close, would have shocked any viewer at this time. Personally, although we will discuss many symbols in this piece, this is the loudest. However, the swing was seen as a symbol of infidelity. This idea will become clearer later in the post.
The man in the foreground is the Baron himself, positioned just perfectly to marvel at his mistress's enchanting legs. He is noticeably young and beautifully dressed. He has rosy cheeks and has a sweet presence about him. It is interesting to look at him in juxtaposition to the older man in the background.
The man in the background is a bit unclear. Some say he could be a bishop, a request made by the Baron to depict the woman swinging pushed by a bishop - or it could be her devoted husband, holding onto her purity in a sense. She swings between the two men as she swings between her morality. If the man is a bishop, she swings between her duty and her pleasure. If it is her husband, she swings between the same.
This brings us to the image of the flying shoe. The shoe represents the frivolity that is happening in this moment. It is a statement about losing something precious to you in the heat of the moment. As I mentioned the women is swinging between her morality - between what is true and what is fun and freeing. Her shoe flies in the direction of the Cupid statue. So interpret that as you may. Cupid is encouraging of all love - even fleeting pleasure.
The little cherub statues tell us something interesting as well. The two babies in the background seem to judge the people in the scene. One looks up in judgement and one turns away with a scowl - making this an unseemly sight to behold.
The Cupid statue to the left of the swinging lady depicts
cupid, holding a finger to his lips representing the secretive nature of the affair. As I said, Cupid encourages all love and pleasure. He watches over, but does not say a word.
To me I see the statues just as I see us, the viewer. Some of us are appalled by what we see, some intrigued, some even encouraging- like our friend Cupid here.
I do not know if you were able to catch the small dog barking in the bottom right hand corner. The dog is often used as a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness - the dog barks in the direction of the woman, warning her against the repercussions of infidelity.
Overall, this image stands out as one of the most captivating paintings from the Rococo period - and is Fragonard's most famous completed painting. To me it represents many things. Firstly it is simply one of the most aesthetically pleasing paintings I have ever seen in my life. It is truly one of those images that make you feel like jumping into the frame. I think it is a true physical depiction of beauty. Deeper than that, this image oozes elegant eroticism, frivolity, innocence, and deceit. Obviously we explored many things here, the idea of good versus bad, pleasure versus duty. She is rocking between what she has and what she wants.
Although all of those ideas are legitimate and I do understand that to be true at the baseline, I also see this image as sexually freeing. I do not think that there was this explicit exploration of female sexuality at all in the court before this. Yes, many women and their bodies were idealized and depicted many times in the history of art. But think about it. This image is erotic, without one nude figure depicted. It is as if Fragonard empowered this swinging lady by letting her decide what her fate should be. Whether we agree with her choices is irrelevant, for in this moment in time, she is free to make her own choice - good or bad. People are pulling her in all directions, she is getting barked at, frowned upon, and scowled at, yet she still swings freely, letting her shoe fall and letting her inhibitions down with it. I see this image as purely feminine. Although commissioned by the Baron, I do not believe this image to be about him at all. She shines brightly among all the frivolity. Instead of wondering whether or not she has engaged in any illicit behavior, let us take her for what she is. A woman, swinging without a care in the world. A woman that will live forever in her frame, representing the height of beauty and mystery. A symbol for femininity that we should never take for granted. She swings frivolously, while we watch in awe, wishing we were in her place.
And thats it for today folks! Thank you for joining me and more things coming soon!
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PS - here is my own image from when I saw the painting last year.
*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia