Subjects in the swing painting

The Swing Painting by Fragonard: An Artistic Analysis

It is unclear as to who commissioned “The Swing” by Fragonard, however, several features of the painting hint toward their identity. The painting is sensual, rich, small, and thereby meant for a private collection. Researchers theorize that the painting has been commissioned by a member of the French Royal Court. 

Here’s an in-depth analysis of “The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

About “The Swing”

The painting is designed to be ethereal, personal, sensual, and sexually charged. Some of these themes were not suitable for public display and were often looked down upon by the public. “The Swing” belongs to the rococo or late baroque period and is therefore extremely decorative and dramatic in style.

Rococo pieces were expensive and exclusive, thus they were favored by the French aristocrats. This type of art became a major turning point in Fragornard’s career since there was not only a change in the subject of his paintings but also his technique.

Roccoco is a style of art that has emerged out of baroque and as a result, both styles share several features. Features of extravagant designs, movement, and drama are common in baroque and rococo. However, there is frivolity and indulgence in rococo that is missing in Baroque.

In his early years, Fragonard’s paintings featured important historical and mythological scenes. Gradually, his art became recognized among the upper classes and he began to cater to their demands. These new paintings featured much less important and often anonymous subjects.

Fragonard’s brushwork became a lot more unstable and rather rough during the later part of his career. These rapid and rough brush strokes made his work much more dynamic and lively. 

Subjects and the Setting

Subjects in the swing painting
“The Swing” – Subjects (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Public Domain.

The Subjects

The protagonist of the present painting is the young woman in the center enjoying a swing in a lush garden wearing a pink satin gown. The swing hangs upon the high branches of a tree, being pushed by a man sitting on the right edge of the scene. 

The woman extends her legs in front of her as she gains momentum. We see a pink slipper slip out of her dainty foot into the air. The slipper leads our eye toward a marble statue of cupid. Just below the statue is a man hiding in the bushes looking up under the skirt of the woman on the swing. 

While the figures in the work are not identifiable as portraits of specific individuals, their rich attire and the beautifully managed garden reveal their aristocratic status.

The Setting

The biggest reason why “The Swing” was not suitable for public display is due to its theme of “Secretive Eroticism”. This theme involves subtle signs of erotic or sexual fantasies. In the present painting, these erotic messages are mostly subliminal and obscured by the shadows. 

In the lower-left corner, you may notice the sculpture of an angel with his finger on his lips. There’s another beautiful sculpture hidden in the painting right below the swinging woman. The sculpture features two cupids riding a dolphin which is actually part of a fountain. 

While most people would say that the woman is the most important subject in the painting, I feel that it’s actually her stunning dress. It’s the sheer extravagance and color that makes it almost impossible for the audience to look away from it. The white lace on the feminine borders of the dress, the fitted bodice accentuating her breasts, oh and if you didn’t notice, that pink shoe slipping from her foot all contribute to make her the star of the scene. She sits on a red velvet seat with golden detailing in the middle of a beautiful lush garden.

In the lower-left corner, we see her lover, resting his body on his right elbow as he looks at his mistress completely mesmerized by her beauty and overcome by ecstasy. 

Colors and Composition

The woman’s dress may be likened to a pink rose, a symbol of infatuation and admiration. The stunning satin flows in the air just like a drop of paint suspended in water. 

Fragonard uses different shades of blue-green to make us aware of the depth of the garden. The scene almost looks like it’s a corner of an aquarium, with the queen fish in the middle, flaunting her colors.

The way sunlight strikes the elements from the top left corner, everything apart from the woman seems like a part of the garden, unless you start looking closely. 

Analysis of the Painting

The Swing painting by fragonard
“The Swing” (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Public Domain.

An analysis of “The Swing” would involve exploring the hidden messages in the painting. One of the less subtle signs of eroticism is the woman’s extended leg that exposes her thigh. While the audience can only see white stockings and a pink garter, the man in the left corner can probably see a lot more. This exchange between the couple breaks the societal constraints of modesty.

The lover is leaning on a marble statue of Cupid that is set on a pedestal decorated with dancing maenads in the bottom left corner. While it is clear that Cupid is the Greek god of love, so he fits right in, however, the maenads are quite interesting. Maenads are the followers of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. They are often considered to be symbols of sex, ecstasy, and wildness. 

The statue is reminiscent of an existing sculpture by Falconet, aptly titled “Menacing Love”. This is a rococo sculpture of cupid with a finger on his lips, a universal gesture of silence, secret, and forbidden love. The sculpture looks down at the man admiring his mistress, and it’s as if he gestures to us to keep our voices down. One may also notice that cupid uses his other hand to remove an arrow from his quiver as if about to strike the careless woman with love. 

Meaning of the Painting

While on the left side of the painting we see raw and untamed love, the right side hints toward societal constraints. Just below the swinging woman is another Cupid sculpture. This sculpture shows two baby cupids riding a dolphin. The cupids tame the otherwise wild dolphin just like the society bridles overt displays of affection. 

The theme of taming further echoes in the ropes that hold the swing. Near the feet of the old man operating the swing is a small poodle, who appears to be barking. The white dog is a symbol of fidelity, it’s barking seems to alert us about the intruding lover who is looking up the woman’s skirt.

On the right side of the piece, symbols of restriction counterbalance the reference to unrestrained lust on the left. The French elites of the 17th and 18th-century took pride in their large, lush gardens which soon became a status symbol. The expression of sexual desires and fantasies in the painting rivals the fertility of the almost overgrown garden.  

Conclusion

Despite being criticized as representations of the moral decline of aristocratic civilization, works like “The Swing” were wildly popular in the eighteenth century. Today the appeal of such paintings has reached an extreme in the form of contemporary art. The importance of this work lies not only in its unusually varied form and topic but also in its capacity to engage spectators in a visual game that makes observations about the nature of both art and society. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the meaning of the swing painting?

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard expresses a very intimate feeling or rather a fantasy. The major theme of the painting centers around a man’s desire for a beautiful woman, however, there are several other messages in the picture. The painting reflects unbridled love and sensuality on one side and societal constraints on the other. 

Who are the people in the swing painting?

The identity of the subject in “The Swing” by Fragonard is unclear. Research suggests that the painting was commissioned to be part of a private collection, ordered by a member of the French Royal Court in the 18th Century. 

The painting indubitably centers around the woman in the pink dress. It is believed that the person who commissioned the painting was in love with the woman in the picture. Thus, the commissioner would probably be the man in the bottom left corner looking at his mistress with lustful eyes. 

Some believe that the man operating the swing is just another worker in service of the rich French woman on the swing. However, an interesting theory suggests that the man is actually her husband. Thus this theory further strengthens the theme of forbidden love in the painting.

Where is the dog in the swing painting?

It took me quite some time to see the dog myself. It’s a tiny white poodle with curly fur sitting close to the swing operator’s feet. The dog appears to be barking as it looks at the woman on the swing. 

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