the swing by jean-honore fragonard
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).
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.
To fully appreciate this enduring masterpiece, one must look to the rise of Rococo and the traditional symbols present within the details of the painting.
In painting, this decorative style transferred to a love of whimsical narratives, pastel colors, and fluid forms. Both in aesthetics and subject matter, The Swing was clearly a work of this newer era of Rococo art.
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. 
This style of “frivolous” painting soon became the target of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who demanded a more serious art which would show the nobility of man. 
Jean- Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing was essentially a commission passed to him by another painter Gabriel-François Doyen. The painting’s storyline and composition was proposed to Doyen by a gentleman of the court, who wanted a painting of him and his mistress. The exact identity of the patron is unknown, though he was at one time thought to have been the Baron de Saint-Julien, the Receiver General of the French Clergy, which would have explained the request to include a bishop pushing the swing. Gabriel Doyen refused the commission and instead passed it on to Fragonard who removed any references to specific people but kept the concept of the original proposal.
And now look at Cupid’s pose. The god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection watches on with an all-knowing smile – he knows what’s really going on, and he implores your silence. And so, this otherwise innocent little childhood game is suddenly filled with playful innuendo and the audience becomes part of the clandestine affair.
This summer 2019 saw the launch of our ground-breaking conservation and research project focused around the Collection’s eight masterpieces by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
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