Fragonard's The Swing

The Beginnings of Rococo

A young woman in a pink dress on a swing. An older man stands behind her, barely visible, pushing her on the swing. In the foreground of the painting, another younger man reclines on the ground. Figure 1. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)


In the early years of the 1700s, at the end of the reign of Louis XIV (who dies in 1715), there was a shift away from the classicism and "Grand Manner" (based on the art of Poussin) that had governed the art of the preceding 50 years, toward a new style that we call Rococo.Versailles was abandoned by the aristocracy, who once again took up residence in Paris. A shift away from the monarchy, toward the aristocracy characterizes this period.

What kind of lifestyle did the aristocracy lead during this period? Remember that the aristocracy had enormous political power as well as enormous wealth. Many chose leisure as a pursuit and became involved themselves in romantic intrigues. Indeed, they created a culture of luxury and excess that formed a stark contrast to the lives of most people in France. The aristocracy, only a small percentage of the population of France, owned over 90% of its wealth. A small, but growing middle class does not sit still with this for long (remember the French Revolution of 1789).

Fragonard's The Swing



Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)

As with most Rococo paintings, the subject of Fragonard's The Swing is not very complicated! Two lovers have conspired to get this older fellow to push the youg lady in the swing while her lover hides in the bushes. Their idea is that as she goes up in the swing, she can part her legs, and he can get a perfect view up her skirt.

They are surrounded by a lush, over grown garden. A sculptured figure to the left puts his fingers to his mouth, as though saying "hush," while another sculpture in the background has two cupid figures cuddled together. The colors are pastel—pale pinks and greens, and although we have a sense of movement and a prominent diagonal line—the painting lacks all of the seriousness of a baroque painting.

Detail of the young woman and the young man. The young woman is looking at him as she kicks off one shoe. Figure 2. Detail of The Swing


If you look really closely you can see the loose brushstrokes in the pink silk dress, and as she opens her legs, we get a glimpse of her garter belt. It was precisely this kind of painting that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were soon to condemn. They demanded a new style of art, one that showed an example of moral behavior, of human beings at their most noble.

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