Depicting a romantic interlude set in an overgrown garden that is populated by statues and a distant fountain, Fragonard’s famed rococo painting, The Swing, marks a key turning point in his career. At the same time, it is not an outlier.
The painting holds a well-established place in a larger historical context: its iconography draws upon several longstanding traditions, as explored in Swings in History section and it fundamentally informs subsequent developments in fashion and design, as discussed in The Swing in Vogue section.
In Fragonard’s own work, too, it is a piece that is as much about continuity and congruence as about breaking away.
The Swing draws upon the rococo vocabulary defined by Fragonard’s teacher, François Boucher (1703–1770), both in style – swirling diagonals, bold colour contrasts of pink and blue-green – and in substance, with its depiction of a beautiful woman in a garden.
Indeed, Fragonard’s painting closely recalls stylistic elements of Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour of 1759 (P418), down to the greenish-blue foliage that sets off the beribboned pink dress of the central female figure.
This similarity may not be accidental: The Swing includes a direct reference to Louis XV’s mistress in the form of the little statue on the painting’s left. This is Menacing Cupid (in the Musée du Louvre) by Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716–1791), which was made for Pompadour herself and exhibited to great acclaim at the Salon of 1757.
Precursors to The Swing in Fragonard’s own work include the Wallace Collection’s Musical Contest (P471), in which two lovers vie over the affections of a central female figure, again in pink.
Here, the theme of the love triangle is elevated thanks to the courtly allusion to music, while the artist explored a more physical side to romance in his pendant paintings Blind Man’s Buff and The See-Saw.
Likely made around the same time as The Musical Contest, these colourful, exuberant canvases depict a pair of young lovers giving expression to their emotions through the medium of boisterous childhood games, while the presence of a pair of grubby children lends an even more rustic aura to the proceedings.
In the years after he painted The Swing, Fragonard continued to revisit its key themes. In The Isle of Love, Fragonard gave free rein to his interest in the overgrown garden landscape, known as the English-style garden, then gaining predominance in France over the more orderly and old-fashioned French style garden.
Made approximately three years after The Swing, The Isle of Love depicts a fantasy landscape, one thickly overgrown with invasive greenery and dominated by immense trees. On the right, a sailing party observes the rush of cascading water from the safety of a small vessel.
The scene appears to reference Antoine Watteau’s (1684–1721) Embarkation for Cythera (in the Musée du Louvre), in which a courtly party disports itself in a fantasy setting, but here, nature has gone from idyllic to wild, and the artist has taken the garden from backdrop to primary element of his composition.
Finally, what many consider the pinnacle of Fragonard’s romantic garden scenes is the cycle of paintings known collectively as The Progress of Love.
These were commissioned by Madame du Barry, who, in 1768, succeeded Madame de Pompadour as titular mistress to Louis XV. Fragonard specifically designed the cycle to adorn the apse-shaped salon in her Château de Louveciennes.
Set once again in a chaotic English-style garden, these paintings illustrate the stages of a courtship, as the relationship evolves from initial meeting to full-fledged pursuit, to the coronation of love, and beyond. Like The Swing, these four works must surely count among Fragonard’s greatest achievements.
A sense of their immersive effect upon the viewer, who is drawn into the enchantment and romantic possibilities of Fragonard’s overgrown natural world, was captured, many years later, by American painter Walter Gay (1856–1937), who represented them in their final resting place at the Frick Collection in New York.