Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Fragonard was a pupil of both Chardin and Boucher. With such exalted, but in many ways very different mentors, one would expect that his gifts might blossom in various directions, which is indeed what happened — Fragonard became a virtuoso painter, draughtsman and engraver. He won the Prix de Rome and was elected to the Académie, his presentation piece (morceau d’agrément) causing a sensation and subsequently being purchased for the Crown. But he turned his back on the Académie, preferring to paint smaller scale works for private collectors. This picture was one such commission, from Baron de St Julien who originally went to a well respected history painter and pronounced, so the story goes, ‘I desire that you should paint Madame (indicating his mistress) on a swing which is being set in motion by a Bishop. You must place me where I can have a good view of the legs of this pretty little thing.’ The baron’s original choice of painter refused the commission and recommended M. Fragonard. Along the way, the bishop was converted into an elderly husband.
A chocolate box confection, The Swing is nevertheless a beautifully crafted piece. The jungle-like foliage is particularly interesting, painted in the strange unnatural, grey-green which was favoured by Boucher and the Rococo painters of the period. The two male members of the cast are clothed in colours which seem to blend in with the surrounding verdure, so much so that the more elderly gentleman, immersed in shadow is easy to miss at a cursory glance. All this provides the backdrop for the swirling ‘party’ pink dress of the young lady on the swing who has just kicked off her matching pink slipper which is captured at the apogee of its flight before its fall to earth, perhaps quite close to her lover. Artfully hidden behind a rose bower, he is placed in a most appealing position, the better to appreciate the shapely legs — and perhaps more — of his beloved. The cuckolded elderly husband is meanwhile doing all the work in the shadows, oblivious to the treachery of his young wife.
1766 Hubert Robert: Landscape with Stone Bridge; St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1767 Gaimbattista Tiepolo: Allegory of the Immaculate Conception; Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
1769 George Stubbs: The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, London, National Gallery