Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) was a great painter who was also a first-rate colorist with excellent decorative skills (Gardner et al 803). His oil painting “The Swing” (1767) belonged to the rococo style with a voyeur motif. The subject and composition of this painting had been commissioned by Monsieur de Saint-Julien who wanted his mistress portrayed as the woman on the swing and himself as the favored peeper.
The voyeur motif, the theme of the sly or otherwise active curious spectator is a very popular one in the French rococo art of the eighteenth century (Bremmer 69). The voyeur, typically of the male sex, is shown hiding behind curtains, or doors or a bush looking at a female who is shown in such a way that the observer of the picture also senses the source of excitement (Bremmer 69). Jean Honore Fragonard’s painting The Swing, from 1767 is a beautiful example of one such painting where the motif of the voyeur is combined in art with other elements such as the Tourette, the swing, and the surrounding scenery.
Description of painting
The painting depicts a dainty young woman dressed in a delicate pink gown swinging in an idyllic open-air setting. The ropes of her swing are manipulated by an older man who is barely visible in the shadowy background, while a younger guy hides in the bushes beneath her. He is half lying half sitting and he can peep under the billowing skirts and at her spread legs. Below the woman, one of the two cupids on a dolphin-like object is facing her and about the middle of the painting on the left side, an “amour silencieux” in profile, seated on a pedestal is also watching the woman with forefinger on his lips.
It seems as if he is telling the excited participants in this happening to be silent about what is going on. A little dog is visible at the bottom right of the picture and his open mouth suggests that he is disobeying the command for silence. The painting is set in a luxuriant garden with rose bushes and freakish branches. The spatial proportions with regard to the figures are unclear and unrealistic, but full of poetic charm.
Posner notes that though there is not much space to swing in, the image of nature’s luxuriance and fertility makes an appropriate context for the amorous swinging scene. Moreover, the density and thickness of nature’s growth seem to provide a secret place of intimacy for the lovers (Bremmer 79). The figures are most rounded and the picture has varied texture – the satin of the skirts to the rough stony architecture. The dress and stone figures are shown in actual realistic texture whereas the space in which the swing moves is painted in abstract texture. Equated with the constraint of stone and architectural design, the old man is an icon of control and continuity (Kavanagh 227).
The only bright color in the painting is in the pink dress of the lady in the swing, thereby emphasizing her presence as the main focus of the painting. The element of light is also used intelligently in the painting. The face of the young guy is shown bright lit up by a mysterious source of lighting – emphasizing the state of excitement that he is in. The young lady in the swing however is the main lighted figure with the old man and the stone figures kept in the dark background. This use of light seems to suggest that the woman, her eyes fixed on the younger man and moving high into space, moves away from the space of age into the sunlit sphere of youth, desire, and the moment (Kavanagh 227).
The painting has a high sense of rhythm, movement, and balance as can be seen in the capture of a fine moment when the lady is precariously poised in relation to the younger guy. It is as if the swing is perfectly controlled by the old man and would soon return. The billowing skirts and the leaning back posture of the lady clearly indicate movement. One shoe has slipped off her foot, perhaps intentionally, and is flying high in the air (Walther et al 360).
The entire painting is unified in its voyeur motif. The lady is looking at the young guy and the young guy is looking teasingly straight at her billowing petticoats and spread legs. Even the angelic figures in the dark background and the cupid figure on the pedestal above the young guy unity seem to focus on the main event of the lady in the swing and the finger of the cupid figure is placed on its mouth suggesting a subtle eroticism and unity to the entire painting.
According to Donald Posner (1982), the act of swinging has an erotic meaning and carried with it connotations of eroticism, sanguinity, and inconstancy (Dixon 231). The woman in the swing is placed in the center of the painting. To the left of the woman, at the bottom, a man is hidden in the rose bushes in such a way that his stretched left arm, with a hat in his hand, and his head askance are in linear arrangement emphasizing the direction of his gaze. Both his eyes and the women are clearly visible. She gazes at him, he at what is hidden under her skirts. This painting captures the exact moment when the young man’s line of vision coincides with the alluring spectacle the girl would offer him (Dixon 231).
Balance is the French word for swing and balance is a major theme of this painting. The artist elegantly balances on the knife-edge of danger (Walther et al 360). It is as though the young suitor had accidentally stumbled and fallen in the bushes and by chance catches a glimpse beneath the rustling petticoats of the pretty woman in the swing. The pretty woman’s gaze is expressionless, and her eyes seem glazed in the charming blush of her face.
This is a very successful work of art as it has technical excellence and captures the true Rococo spirits of frivolity and gallantry.
Kavanagh, M. Thomas (1996). Esthetics of the Moment: Literature and Art in the French Enlightenment. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia.
Dixon, S. Laurinda (1995). Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY.
Donald Posner (1982). The Swinging Women of Watteau and Fragonard.
Bremmer, Jan (1989). From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. Routledge Publishers.
Gardner, Helen; Kleiner, S. Fred and Mamiya, J. Christin (2004). Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Twelfth Edition. Thomson Wadsworth Publishes.
Walther, F. Ingo; Suckale, Robert; and Wundram, Manfred (2002). Masterpieces of Western Art. Taschen Publishers.