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Fragonard, The Swing

Fragonard's "The Swing" is a Rococo painting commissioned by a French royal court member, showcasing playful eroticism and sensuality. The artwork features rapid brushwork, symbolizing secretive eroticism, and abundant nature. It represents the frivolity, luxury, and indulgence of the Rococo style, contrasting with the later neoclassicism movement. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Wallace Collection in London, looking at Fragonard's "The Swing." - [Beth] This was commissioned by a member of the French royal court, who asked Fragonard to paint his lover on a swing, being pushed by a bishop, while he hid and looked up his mistress's dress. - [Steven] By the time Fragonard takes on the commission and renders it, the bishop is no longer really a bishop, just an older man, but he's barely visible in the lower right. So this is a painting that was from the outset meant to be playful, erotic, sexually-charged, that was a bit too naughty to be publicly displayed. - [Beth] Well, like many Rococo paintings, it was a private commission, it was for a private home, and it was for a member of the aristocracy. - [Steven] This is a transitional moment in Fragonard's career. He had been known for large-scale, very formal history paintings, and it's just at this moment when he's abandoning that kind of career for private patrons outside of the system of royal commissions. - [Beth] In that system of royal commissions for the academy, history paintings were primary, scenes from mythology, from French history, from ancient Greek and Roman history, so this couldn't be more different. - [Steven] It wasn't just the subject that changed in Fragonard's art, it was also his technique. His private commissions tended to be created quickly, with rapid brushwork, and we see that here. Look, for instance, at the edging of the woman's dress. Part of the energy that that dress achieves is a result of the rapid brushwork. - [Beth] You can really see the oil paint, for example, in her bodice, or in the white lace. - [Steven] And the idea of secretive eroticism is built into this painting symbolically, if you look at the left edge, you see a painting of a sculpture. This is by a Rococo sculptor named Falconet, and is known as "Menacing Love." And you can see that the Cupid has his finger up, as if asking us to keep a secret. - [Beth] Below that, we see a lovely relief sculpture that looks like maenads or nymphs dancing, and that's not the only sculpture we see here. - [Steven] To the lower right, we see two Cupid figures that seem to be riding a classicizing dolphin, part of a fountain, and in fact, you can see the water spraying out towards the lower right of the painting. - [Beth] But the star of the painting is the young woman, and really, her fabulous pink silk dress, lined with lace, her bodice, her decolletage, her breasts, her choker, her hat, and to me especially, that pink slipper that she flips up into the air. - [Steven] A way of understanding the Rococo is a style of art that comes out of the Baroque, but has jettisoned the seriousness, the morality, but has maintained its sense of energy, its sense of movement. Look at that swing, look at that forward momentum that actually carries the slipper off her foot. - [Beth] And we know that the Baroque used diagonal lines to create a sense of movement and energy, and we see that here, when we follow the rope of the swing through the female figure, and down to her lover in the lower left, who leans back on his right elbow, and lifts up his left arm and seems overtaken by his love and desire for his companion. She's sitting on red velvet that's got a gilded molding at the bottom of it. We're not in the woods here. We're in a cultivated, aristocratic garden, although an incredibly lush one. Nature is so abundant and fertile here, it's clearly relating to the sensuality of the story, and couldn't be more different than the spareness, the severity, the plainness that we'll see in paintings by David just a few years before the Revolution, when we really have an opposition to this type of subject matter, and when critics begin to call for an art that is very different, that offers a moral, instead of indulging in this kind of sensuality. - [Steven] And because this painting becomes a foil to paintings by David with a style known as neoclassicism, the Rococo becomes a bit of a villain, and is looked back to historically recently, by a Nigerian artist named Yinka Shonibare, who has created a three-dimensional representation of this painting, but that deals with not sensuality, but the costs of colonialism, but that is all hindsight. Fragonard's "The Swing" is such a perfect expression of the frivolity, the luxury, and the indulgence of the Rococo. (jazzy piano music)