We are so lucky to have this iconic painting at the Wallace Collection in London. The Musée du Louvre was offered it in 1859 but they turned it down – why?
Did ideas of dress and decorum have something to do with it? In such ‘olden times’, a glimpse of stocking was thought of as shocking, with erotic frisson caused by ankle, foot and even shoes.
The key to the ‘Pleasures of the Swing’ (for participants and observers) lay in abandonment to physical sensation. Enjoyment of this painting relies on interaction (illicit or overt) between the sexes. Such an obvious allusion to sensual and sensuous pleasures was firmly rooted in the cultural values of 18th-century France and its norms of decorum linked to dress and undress.
The French court set the fashions in the mid-18th century. If we use Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour as our model, we see pastel-pink ‘frou frou’ fabric and frothy lace still worn by Fragonard’s leading lady.
Gowns open to reveal petticoats of the same textile and hue. Gathered flounces on skirts are matched by ruched fabric ‘robings’ edging the dresses from front shoulder to hem. Tight upper sleeves end at the elbow in layered frills of lace (called engageants) that scream purchasing power, but also show off well-turned arms and elegant wrists.
Both Boucher and Fragonard depict a pretty face set off by ruffled fabric around the neck. Madame de Pompadour also wears pearls to set off a pearly white complexion, and both artists direct light at the chest to capture our attention.
Madame de Pompadour’s stomacher is adorned with a ladder of ribbon bows (echelles), whereas Fragonard’s lady likely follows the 1760s fashion for buttons almost hidden by ruched white silk. V-shaped stomachers call attention to tiny waists and to the site of erotic interest beneath the skirts.
Next to the skin men and women wore linen – both to protect the wearer from scratchy garments, and these silk outer layers from bodily secretions. Men wore wide-sleeved shirts, gathered at the wrist, and women wore T-shaped ‘shifts’, which could be ‘shifted’ (removed and washed) easily.
Nattier’s Mademoiselle de Claremont en Turquerie is clearly an imagined scene, but the white garment with full sleeves is based on shifts worn in life. Such ‘underwear’ and slipper-clad bare legs would only be revealed to a lady’s intimates – hence the eroticism of this work. In polite society, stockings would be worn, but these could often prompt impolite thoughts.
In 1762, a man shopping for his wife found that ‘writing about your stockings and dear, pretty legs makes me feel what is not to be expressed.’
Stays (corsets) were worn over the shift. Made of silk or linen stiffened by whalebone, they served as a ‘second skeleton’ to mould the body into the conical shape deemed decent.
An approximation of this foundation garment is worn as outwear by Boucher’s picturesque peasants. Shepherdesses wore sunhats, inspiring stylish and lightweight Bergère hats of willow, chip, straw and silk (as depicted by Fragonard).
In The Swing, both men wear the ancestor of our three-piece suit. We glimpse a blue lining to the recumbent man’s grey silk doublet (jacket). His matching vest (waistcoat) and breeches are rumpling under the exertion of his activities, and he holds his tricorn beaver hat aloft.
Could we argue that the stiff and structured cocked hat contrasts with the soft and shapeless hat that sits next to the older man – the cuckolded husband?
Men’s expensive beaver hats were more commonly carried under the arm than worn on the head, where they would be covered in powder from the wig. The fashionable young man wears a bag wig –whereby the ‘queue’ (similar to a modern ponytail) is inserted into a black-silk drawstring bag, tied with a bow at the nape of the neck.
We can’t really see the bag wig in Fragonard’s painting, but it is clearly visible in the 1782 engraving that was made after this painting. Details of dress would surely have been discussed and decoded by patron and painter devising the depiction of this love triangle, aided by the actions of the swing.
By the late 1850s (when the Musée du Louvre did not want to show this work to its public), women wore bifurcated undergarments called ‘knickers’ or ‘drawers’ under their bell-shaped long skirts; one hundred years earlier they did not.
The 18th-century lady on the swing would have worn her shift with nothing underneath it – thus rendering the possibility of the viewpoint of the lady’s lover indecent in the extreme (even beyond the flash of pink thigh).
This painting was designed to be seen by a few in an intimate 18th-century interior. Yet now, the beauty of this garden, the pleasurable activities played out within it, and the charms of the female protagonist are laid bare for all to see thanks to the actions of her dynamic drapery and the imaginative path it provokes.
This article was written by Jacqui Ansell, Senior Lecturer at Christie's Education.