art history meme. 5/9 paintings

the swing, c. 1767
jean-honoré fragonard

The theme is that of love and the rising tide of passion, as intimated by the sculptural group in the lower centre of the picture. (Dolphins driven by cupids drawing the water-chariot of Venus symbolize the impatient surge of love). Beneath the girl on the swing, lying in a great bush, a tangle of flowers and foliage, is the young lover, gasping with anticipation. The bush is, evidently, a private place as it is enclosed by little fences. But the youth has found his way to it. Thrilling to the sight now offered him, the youth reaches out with hat in hand. (A hat in eighteenth-century erotic imagery covered not only the head but also another part of the male body when inadvertently exposed.) The feminine counterpart to the hat was the shoe and in The Swing the girl’s show flies off her pretty foot to be lost in the undergrowth. In French paintings of the period a naked foot and lost shoe often accompany the more familiar broken pitcher as a symbol of lost virginity.

However, all these erotic symbols would lie inert on the canvas had not Fragonard charged the whole painting with the amorous ebullience and joy of an impetuous surrender to love. In a shimmer of leaves and rose petals, lit up by a sparkling beam of sunshine, the girl, in a frothy dress of cream and juicy pink, rides the swing with happy, thoughtless abandon. Her legs parted, her skirts open; the youth in the rose-bush, hat off, arm erect, lunges towards her. Suddenly, as she reaches the peak of her ride, her shoe flies off. (x)