When Jean-Honoré Fragonard began his artistic training, he was embarking on a clearly defined path in an environment that was highly structured and regulated. In the 18th century, the French art world was essentially dominated by the powerful Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which had been founded in 1648.
Members of this institution were eligible to teach in its ranks and were granted preference in the most high-profile royal commissions. In addition, only associate and full members were able to exhibit in the Salon, the public biennial exhibition that attracted large numbers of visitors, from France and abroad.
The chronicler of Parisian life Gabriel de Saint-Aubin provides an important indication of the scale of this latter exhibition in his painted and graphic depictions, such as that showing the Salon du Louvre in 1779. The Salon took place in the vast Salon Carré, or ‘Square Salon’ of the Louvre Palace, its walls hung, nearly to the ceiling, with paintings.
Viewers crowded enthusiastically into this space to see the best of the contemporary French school; those who could not attend in person eagerly consumed the lengthy, often critical, reports circulated by writers, such as Denis Diderot, whose scathing commentaries constitute an early and important body of art criticism.
As might be expected, membership of this important institution was attained with difficulty. Young artists underwent rigorous training, notably receiving instruction in life drawing after the male nude. This equipped them to make ‘history paintings’ – large-scale representations of multi-figural scenes drawn from classical history, mythology or the Bible that were designed to inspire and educate.
Following years of study (often capped off in Rome, as was the case with Fragonard), they submitted an approval piece, on the strength of which they might be accorded associate membership and allowed to show in the Salon exhibition. Full membership to the institution was only attained on the basis of a reception piece.
Fragonard participated in the Salon on two occasions. In 1765, he took the art world by storm when he publicly presented his approval piece, a massive scene drawn from Greek mythology entitled Corésus and Callirhoé.
This large-scale canvas, in which a priest of Dionysus, Corésus, sacrifices himself in the place of the intended victim, Callirhoé, received widespread praise for its sweeping, dreamlike take on heroism and noble self-sacrifice.
The work was promptly purchased by the Crown to be made into a tapestry at the Gobelins Manufactory (a royal factory producing luxury furnishings), and a pendant was commissioned. However, the government coffers were depleted by military expenditure, and Fragonard was not fully paid for Corésus until 1773.
In the meantime, his life and artistic interests were clearly moving in a very different direction. In 1767, the year in which he received the commission for The Swing, his submissions to the Salon included a head study, several drawings and the playful Swarm of Cupids, a study for a ceiling painting. With its writhing bodies and complete absence of narrative, this painting is very different from Corésus and Callirhoé.
Diderot termed it an ‘omelette’ that was ‘well yellowed and well burnt,’ and other critics were similarly savage. In response, Fragonard never exhibited his work in the Salon again. Stepping away from the Royal Academy, he began to produce paintings of a very different nature.