The circumstances of the commission of The Swing are recounted by the French dramatist and songwriter Charles Collé, whose journal entry of October 1767 reads as follows:
I returned to Paris on the 1st of this month. The following day, I saw M. Doyen, painter […] Would you believe, said this painter […] … a gentleman of the Court sent for me in order to commission a painting … [He was at] his ‘pleasure house’ [petite maison] with his mistress when I presented myself.
‘I should like,’ he [said], ‘to have you paint Madame [pointing to his mistress] on a swing that a bishop would push. You will place me in such a way that I would be able to see the legs of this lovely girl, and better still, if you want to enliven your picture a little more…’
‘I confess,’ Mr. Doyen said to me, that this proposition, which I could never have expected, given the nature of the painting that the gentleman suggested, confounded and petrified me at first. [After I collected myself], I addressed this gentleman to Mr. Fagonat [Fragonard], who undertook it and who is currently working on this singular painting.
From Collé’s account, we learn a series of important facts. First, Fragonard was not the artist initially approached regarding this painting. Rather, it was Gabriel-François Doyen (1726–1806), who had made his name at the Salon of 1767 with a large-scale depiction showing Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, saving the city from the violent plague known as the ‘mal des ardents’ (likely ergot poisoning).
Now housed in one of the transept chapels of Paris’s Church of Saint-Roch, the work firmly established Doyen as one of the leading religious painters of his day, so it is not surprising that he should find himself ‘petrified’ by the composition suggested to him and opt to pass the opportunity to his colleague, Fragonard.
Second, we may further surmise that Doyen’s suggestion of Fragonard indicates that the latter’s growing dissatisfaction with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was by then generally known. Third, Collé’s account provides a precise timeframe for the making of The Swing. It is dated October 1767 and states that Fragonard was already at work on the commission.
What Collé does not deliver, unfortunately, is the name of the gentleman behind this commission. However, he has long been assumed to be François-David Bollioud de Saint-Julien, the immensely wealthy tax farmer for the French clergy, whose profession might well have informed his eccentric wish to include a bishop in the composition.
While a specific name continues to remain elusive, Collé’s account does provide some understanding of the type of patron for whom Fragonard worked following his move away from the Royal Academy: wealthy, worldly, interested in the representation of pleasure, rather than duty.
Fragonard’s known circle of patrons included individuals such as Jean-Claude Richard, abbé de Saint-Non, the amateur artist, writer and devotee of sophisticated Parisian society, whom the artist depicted in 1769.
These individuals enthusiastically populated the burgeoning sale rooms, driving the price of art upwards and contributing to the formation of a private taste that was very much opposed to the grandiose history paintings favoured by the Royal Academy.