The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honore Fragonard
Interpretation of French Rococo Painting

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The Swing
By Jean-Honore Fragonard.
Regarded as one of the
greatest paintings of
the French Rococo.

The Swing (1767)


Analysis of The Swing by Fragonard
Interpretation of Other 18th Century Paintings


Name: The Swing (L'Escarpolette) (1767)
Artist: Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement: Rococo art
Location: Wallace Collection, London

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


A highly important figure in 18th century French painting, who now ranks among the greatest of all Rococo artists, the exceptionally talented Fragonard trained under Francois Boucher - whose main patron was Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour - and Jean Chardin, famous for his still life painting and genre works. Winner of the Prix de Rome run by the French Academy, he was influenced by the pastoral scenes of Nicolas Poussin and above all by the freer, more colourful painting of Giambattista Tiepolo, famous for his Wurzburg Residence frescoes (1750-53). During the mid-1760s, revitalizing the idiom pioneered by Jean-Antoine Watteau, Fragonard began to specialize in the playful, erotic compositions for which he is now most famous. His delicate 18th century colour palette, witty content and fast brushwork gave even his most voyeuristic canvases a wonderful atmosphere of gaiety and joyfulness.

For more background, see: the Rococo paintings of Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), painter to Louis XIV, and those of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette, as well as works by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). See also: French Decorative Art (c.1640-1792).

Analysis of The Swing by Fragonard

The Swing (L'Escarpolette), originally known as Lucky Happenings on the Swing (Les Hasards heureux de l'escarpolette), is Fragonard's best known work. It is believed to have been commissioned by the Baron de Saint-Julien, who wanted a picture of his mistress on a swing being pushed by a bishop, whilst he (the Baron) was so positioned as to be able to see up her the girl's skirt. (Note: The Baron's insistence on a bishop was probably a private joke, as he himself occupied an important position in the Church, as Receiver General of the French clergy.) As it was, Fragonard replaced the bishop with the more traditional figure of a cuckolded husband, but otherwise fullfilled the commission almost to the letter.



The Swing depicts a young man - concealed in the foliage - who is watching a young woman on a swing. (At the time, a swing was a conventional symbol for infidelity.) She is being pushed by an elderly man in the background who has no idea of the young man's presence. At first glance, the picture appears to be a simple image of an innocent young woman at play, but then it becomes clear that the picture is deliberately risque and rather rascally. Because as the lady rides higher and higher on the swing, she allows her admirer to see up her dress - and even kicks her legs apart for his benefit. As she does so, she sends one of her shoes soaring towards a winged figure that could easily represent Cupid, the Roman god of desire and erotic love.

Other instances of symbolism are also worth noting. In the foreground (right), a tiny lapdog - a symbol of faithfulness - sounds the alarm by barking, but the woman's husband takes no notice. On the left, Cupid raises a finger to his lips to prevent the two Venus-putti beneath the swing from giving the game away, while the outstretched left arm of the young man (the Baron) has an obvious, phallic significance.

The joyful exuberance of the painting is accentuated by the way that the frills of the girl's dress match the pattern of the surrounding foliage, as well as by its glowing pastel colours and soft lighting. This erotic snapshot - this masterpiece of Rococo art, commemorating the spirit of aesthetic refinement and aristocratic decadence on the eve of the French Revolution - shows that in the area of titillation, Fragonard is simply incomparable.

Interpretation of Other 18th Century Paintings

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby.
National Gallery, London.

The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli.
Detroit Institute of Arts.

Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.


• For more Rococo oil paintings by artists like Fragonard, see: Homepage.

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