The word “Rococo” stems from the French “rocaille”, which indicates grottos and other fancy garden decorations which became popular in Eighteenth-century France. When Louis XIV took steps to transform the little hunt lodge of Versailles into a lavish palace, he intended to create a luxurious environment for the aristocracy to spend time in the most refined and expensive pleasures. He wanted, in fact, to distract the country’s noblemen, and keep them away from politics. Versailles, and the myth of elegant idleness it had generated, became the epitome of Rococo style in art, and one of its main poles of production.
The Swing – Jean-Honoré Fragonard – 1767 – oil on canvas – London, Wallace Collection
When Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted The Swing (1767), he was an established artist, and his refined touch was greatly appreciated. The Swing itself had been commissioned by an upper-class patron, whose lover featured in the final composition as the visual core, the beating heart of the work of art. Supported by the swing’s ropes, the agile figure of the lady flows in the air. Her dress swells, the folds fly freely around her delicate limbs, which dance above the ground. In the meanwhile, she stares down at a charmed boy, still on the ground in pleased atonement. Her gaze is self-conscious, slightly malicious.
The nature all around blooms violently, creating a deep curtain of green branches. Contorted trees direct the light, and channel it toward the pink dress. The environment empathetically participates in the strength of youth, while the stone putto on the left invites the viewer to keep the secret of an illicit love. In fact, the lost shoe of the dame is a sign that she has already surrendered to the man’s requests, and that the two have laid together before, as H. Honour and J. Fleming point out. Actually, the request for secrecy is a mere joke, a necessary component of an aristocratic society where the king could even have an “official” lover. As in drama, the lie is acknowledged but each role must be respected anyway.
Rococo art told stories of idleness and pleasure, the decadent epics of a decadent world. In a bunch of years, the French Revolution crafted a new society, based on new egalitarian principles. Fragonard himself, one of the greatest painters of his time, spent his last post-Revolution years in obscurity. His patrons had disappeared along with their favourite subjects, and there was no more place for idle games, adulterine loves, and fetes galantes. In a few years, The Swing did not represent the ruling elite anymore. It was a sign of the past, despised. Now that the French Revolution has past as well, we can admire again its carefree beauty and joy de vivre.