The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard

A young woman in a straw hat ringed with flowers swings gaily in a dense forest. One small, white hand holds the rope loosely, high up, and the other arm is hooked around the other side. She has a satisfied smile on her flushed face and her eyes rest on a statue of a cupid, standing thoughtfully on an engraved pillar on the left hand side. She wears an abundant dress in salmon pink that billows around her, ballooning out as she moves through the air. It is her dress that tells the audience she’s mid-flight, seated on a red velvet cushion, edged with gold. Her white petticoats show beneath the frilled material of her skirt and her sleeve is adorned with white frothy ruffles. There is a blue flower tucked into her bodice but she is too elegant to be a country wench. Her hair is carefully tucked into her hat and she has a bow around her white neck. She is wearing clothes that wouldn’t be out of place at a ball or formal engagement. And yet she seems perfectly at home within the natural environment. The surrounding forest is detailed and verdant; if you look closely, each leaf is etched in oil. It’s almost overpowering. The whole top half of the painting is just branches and trees stretching into the distance. There is no sky, no chink of blue, but a shaft of sunlight alights upon the young woman swinging and falls on the ground in the right hand corner on a patch of delicate red flowers and a gnarled old tree trunk.

You don’t see him immediately. The young man is below her, prone in the left hand corner against the pillar. He’s wearing a tailored suit of greeny grey, merging him with the woods around him. His legs are submerged in the bush. He’s leaning up on one elbow and his other arm is half buried and  holding half of a three cornered hat. He looks as though he’s been dropped there, into the forest, stricken with the vision of his mistress swinging above him. His face is deeply flushed under a curled white wig, hair pulled back into a pony tail. He’s all desire. His mouth hangs open and his eyes roll back in his head and you can see the whites. An ecstatic display of arousal. His body leans up to her, the young woman above him, and longs for her but she is just beyond his reach. Hidden further back into the right hand side of the painting behind a tree is an old man holding the ropes that swing her. Sitting squat on a bench in the murky darkness with his wig firmly on his head and his mouth slightly open. Admiring? Jealous? Excited? He’s ignored by the young lovers. Part of the scene but only a bit part.


The Wallace Collection catalogue states that the painting was commissioned by a “gentleman of the Court” to “paint his young mistress on a swing, pushed by a Bishop, with himself admiring her legs from below.” Yet it is quite clear that the young man is looking at more than her legs: he’s gazing at the private area between them, as she feigns innocence from above. She wouldn’t have been wearing undergarments, just stockings that were tied above the knee with a ribbon. In the painting, you can just see the end of her stocking, a pink ribbon, and a tantalising inch of the flesh of her thigh. Indeed, on closer inspection, she is nonchalantly holding her legs open for him to look further, up her skirt and at the hidden place that lies between. What at first looks like a pink bird or butterfly flying in the air into the woods, is actually her slipper. Pink satin and edged with flowers. Perhaps lost as she flicked it off as she showed herself to her ardent lover below. It’s subtle and erotic. Explicit. She may be swung by one man and coveted by another below, but she draws them further and deeper in their longing by exposing herself.

The Swing was painted in 1767 in France by Jean-Honore Fragonard. It’s probably one of his most famous paintings. According to the poet, Charles Colle, the first artist commissioned to paint this paean to lust was the historical painter, Gabriel-Francois Doyen, but he felt that the subject matter was more suited to his fellow artist — the foremost eighteenth century French artist of Rococo eroticism. I’ve seen it before, printed and referred to, but standing beneath it is a completely different experience. The sheer erotic power of it. The humour. The virility. Very good reasons to visit the excellent Wallace Collection.