rococo art the swing
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.
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.
There are two notable copies, neither by Fragonard.
The original owner remains unclear. A firm provenance begins only with the tax farmer Marie-François Ménage de Pressigny, who was guillotined in 1794,  after which it was seized by the revolutionary government. It was possibly later owned by the marquis des Razins de Saint-Marc, and certainly by the duc de Morny. After his death in 1865, it was bought at auction in Paris by Lord Hertford, the main founder of the Wallace Collection. 
While most painters of the time shied away from the task, Fragonard happily undertook the project. Depicting sensual, indulgent scenes was a comfortable specialty he was lauded for as an artist. In the end, however, Fragonard did make one omission from the original request, and exchanged the figure of a bishop with the more acceptable character of a cuckolded husband.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “Self-Portrait in a Renaissance Costume,” ca. 1760-70 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1766
Jean-Honoré Fragonard brings this picture to life with the frilly patterns. It is believed to be one of the masterpieces of the Rocco era and is Fragonard’s best-known work. The ruffles on the swinging girl’s dress are repeated in the illuminated leaves, twisting branches and the scalloped edges of the fluffy clouds. In the right corner of the painting, there is an elderly man who is hiding in the bushes and pushes the swing. As he does this, he gazes under the girl’s skirt. The girl seems to be unaware of his presence. His hat and the girl’s shoe are sexual references in this portrait. His hat is a phallic symbol and her shoe is a vaginal one. These two symbols complement the setting of the picture, an enclosed but open garden, where love games are played. The stone statues in the picture help emphasize the eroticism of the picture. On the left, Cupid is calling for secrecy and silence by putting his finger to his lips. Between the swing and the old man, two more Cupids are clinging to a dolphin. Fragonard’s style takes more of a Classical approach in this painting, which helps provide the erotic themes. The scenes of pleasure inspired Fragonard’s choice of content in this picture. The Swing was commissioned by Saint-Julien who specifically told Fragonard to paint the baron’s mistress on the swing, and paint him as the observer in the corner. It is believed that the girl’s husband is the man on the lower left corner, except he plays a more submissive role in the painting. Fragonard managed to capture a moment of complete spontaneity while also alluding to the illicit affair that may have already been going on, or is just about to begin. Fragonard emphasizes the eroticism of “swinging” by highlighting the shimmering texture and swirling curves of the dress. Swinging in this context has the same connotations and can be compared to the “swinging sixties.”
The Rococo style attempted to appeal more to the sensual rather than the intellectual side. As a result Fragonard utilized a delicate pastel color palette that would be just as at home in a cupcake shop as on canvas, with frothy creams, juicy pinks, and minty greens.
His mistress flies through the air on a sylvan swing, the lovely young lady giving herself away to frivolous abandon, her shoe flying off in the heat of the moment.