Fragonard’s “The Swing” and a Little Dog

Jean Honoré Fragonard, "The Swing," 1767

The first art history paper I ever wrote in college was on Fragonard’s The Swing (shown above). I remember writing about the Rococo style and the rise of the French aristocracy in the 18th century. I also remember discussing how this scene represents a young woman who is being pushed on a swing by an older man (shown in the background on the right). This older suitor or husband seems unaware, however, that a younger suitor is hiding in the bushes (on the left). To put it mildly, this younger suitor is getting a very privileged viewpoint of his beloved on the swing: he can look up her dress!1 She, in turn, kicks off her shoe (a symbol of sexuality) in the direction of the young suitor. I think that the shoe also seems to fly in the air as a defiant gesture toward the cupid figure on the right, who holds a cautionary finger to his lips (seen by some as a symbol of discretion).2

I remember feeling so sure of myself when I submitted my final draft of this paper, which I think was no more than 6-8 pages in length. As a naive little student, I felt like I had mastered that painting and knew everything that there was to know about it. Boy, was I wrong about that!

Since writing that paper several years ago, I have learned several new things about this painting by Fragonard. I even have spotted some new details after watching a Smarthistory video clip on the painting. I really like this short clip, and I actually am assigning some of my art history students to watch this video as part of a homework assignment.

One of the things mentioned in this video, which I had never spotted previously, is the inclusion of a little tiny dog in the bottom right corner of the painting, not too far from the feet of the older suitor. The dog is standing on its hind legs and appears to be yapping. It’s easy for the viewer to miss this little detail at first glance; the bouncy curls in the dog’s coat look similar to the surrounding flower petals and leaves.

Detail of Fragonard's "The Swing," 1767

So why is the dog included in this scene? The Smarthistory video raises the issue that the dog, which normally appears in art as a symbol of fidelity, obviously is inappropriate in this context. But, considering that the dog seems agitated and upset, perhaps the symbol still is appropriate. Does anyone have any thoughts? Now that I have noticed the dog, I think that there might even be some interaction between the discretionary cupid figure (with its finger toward its lips) and the yapping dog. The cupid might be trying to get the dog to quiet down while the lovers enjoy a rather, ahem, intimate moment.

There is one thing in the Smarthistory video that I think it interesting, but I’m not sure that I accept. The video suggests that in the background of the scene, the two cupid figures might be sitting next to a beehive (which could be seen as a symbol for the “sting of love”). This is an interesting idea, but I’ve always thought that the figures were sitting next to a large fish. The fish is looking toward the viewer with a large eye, a gaping mouth, and thick lips (see below). I obviously am not alone in my interpretation, since other commenters on the Smarthistory page mentioned the same thing. (By the way, you should check out the comments. They are absolutely fascinating.)

Detail for Fragonard's "The Swing," 1767

It makes sense that a fish would be depicted here for a few reasons: first of all fish (and more specifically, dolphins) were associated with the imagery for Venus, the goddess of love. According to some mythological accounts, Venus was born out of the sea. Fish also would be appropriate for French Rococo imagery, which often includes motifs of plants, rocks, shells, foam, etc. Fish were even included as decorative features during this period, as can be seen on some fish-shaped vases.

Do you see a fish or a beehive in this painting? What do you think about the inclusion of the dog? Any other thoughts about this painting?

1This privileged view and “happy accident” for the young suitor was quite intentional subject matter on part of the patron, Baron de Saint-Julien. Saint-Julien specified the details of the painting and wanted his mistress to be depicted as the woman in the scene. The baron also wanted to include a clever pun with his chosen theme, since he served as the government representative who collected taxes paid by the Church. His government title was “Receiver of the general goods offered by the clergy” (Receveur général des biens du clergé). Saint-Julien originally requested that the older gentleman be represented as a bishop, but it appears that Fragonard omitted a such an impudent reference to the Church. Nonetheless, the older suitor (who may be clergyman or a husband) is delivering “goods” to be seen by the young suitor. See David A. Wilkins, “Art Past Art Present,” 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 408.

2 Along the lines of discretion, some feel that the cupid “enjoins [the young suitor] to keep the secret of what he has seen.” See Wilkins, 408.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Hi M! Congrats on the inaugural post at the new site!

    This is a very recognisable image to me, and I’m sure many others. I recall that my mum owns some porcelain items with this on it.

    In any event, I think I’m with you when it comes to the beehive – do we have any antecedent images of Cupids/Putti playing with fallen behives? I would not be surprised to see this motif is quoted from an earlier Italian piece, as playful putti so often were in French 18thC art.

    You commonly see putti playing with fish around fountains in particular – hence that motif could also be the commonly used allegory of a fountain/flow of water for love.

    From a thematic perspective, the painting seems to be split between the dandified suitor and the older gent behind her.

    Maybe it’s just me but I get a sense that the artists is playing a slight joke on his Tax-collector patron, whom so carefully specified the ‘priveleged view’ theme.

    Could it be that the artist is suggesting that the relationship between the mistress and the younger suitor is frivolous and superficial, whereas the older gent, with the motif of the dog and the controlling reins of the swing shows where the woman’s affections should be? It would be interesting to know more about the history of the mistress supposedly represented in this image!

    Kind Regards
    H

  • Sedef says:

    “May the roof above us never fall in And may we good companions beneath it never fall out.”
    Irish Blessing

    I just wanted to congratulate you on your new ‘home’and mention that I love that you used Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at the Window as the image for your site.

    About the cupid and the fish or beehive conundrum, unless an artist leaves behind detailed explanations about his intentions, isn’t all art open to interpretation?

    Since I can’t see myself as a detached observer when it comes to art, I would like to think that we make it a more personal experience by adding some small hypothesis of our own.

    I am looking forward to your new posts.

    Good Luck,

    Sedef

  • francis DeStefano says:

    M:

    It appears to me that the theme of this painting comes right out of the Commedia del’Arte. The old man (either a guardian, a la Mozart, or a husband, according to Wikipedia) inadvertently pushes the lovely female towards her lover hiding off center. The dog’s very natural response to the intruder goes unheeded.

    The same theme can be seen in the great Italian film, “Divorce Italian Style.” At the finale, Marcelo Mastroianni reclines with his young, bikini-clad, cousin on a sailboat on their honeymoon cruise. Unbeknownst to him, the camera pans to show her playing “footsie” with a young sailor.

    Luckily, the Baron who commissioned the painting died in 1788, a year before many of his aristocratic friends would lose their heads.

    Frank

  • Hello Monica,

    For the dolphin (not fish) see this:
    http://www.squinchpix.com/searchn.php?zoom_query=^13825&dmode=gallery
    and this for dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in classical art generally
    http://www.squinchpix.com/searchn.php?zoom_query=dolphin,~house&dmode=gallery

    Nice post but I found the comments on the ArtHistory page extremely speculative.

    Here’s what it says in Nature and its Symbols, Lucia Impelluso,
    (tr. Stephen Sartarelli), 2004, 350, under the article Dolphin, “According
    to Cesare Ripa, a dolphin with a child astride it represents the allegory of the Gentle
    Disposition.”

    [But I cannot locate this reference in the Iconologia.]

    In Graves, The Greek Myths
    (16.b.1) we read this about Poseidon’s attempt to get a wife for himself: “Amphitrite,
    another Nereid, whom he next approached, viewed his advances with repugnance,
    and fled to the Atlas Mountains to escape him; but he sent messengers after her,
    among them one Delphinus, who pleaded Poseidon’s cause so winningly that she
    yielded, and asked him to arrange the marriage. Gratefully, Poseidon set Delphinus’s
    image among the stars as a constellation, the Dolphin.”

    So we see that the Dolphin is associated with the Gentle Disposition and with successful pleading
    in love. The dolphin is also associated with rescue (Herodotus’ famous story of Arion which
    Fragonard would surely have known) and celerity. And the dolphin is also associated directly to
    Venus as an quick examination of the suggested pictures
    will show and is often depicted pulling her (ocean-going) chariot.

    I think that the trio of putti (erotes), Dolphin, and the exceedingly relaxed pretty girl tell us all we need to know.
    Fragonard is a charming painter and anyone who loves him would be well advised to take a trip to Grasse
    where there is a museum dedicated to him. But, let’s face it, as far as intellectual content
    is concerned, we’re not talking Titian here.

    Best,

    Bob Consoli

  • heidenkind says:

    I am impressed you can remember what your first art history paper was on, because I absolutely cannot. I think it was on Thai Buddhist painting or something.

    Personally, I’ve always seen a beehive between the two cupids. I never even thought about it being a fish until now.

  • Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    @H: You’ve brought up some interesting points about fidelity, the reins of the swing, etc. I like that way of thinking. Considering that the older gentleman is also a member of the clergy, there are also ideas of restraint and faithfulness associated with his religious role.

    @Sedef: Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad that you like the Friedrich banner. I think you have an great idea about making the painting a personal experience. I suppose we could just select whatever motif and imagery best appeals to us, since in this case it isn’t quite clear what Fragonard depicted.

    @Frank: I didn’t realize that Baron de Saint-Julien died in 1788. That’s interesting! Just by looking at this painting, one can see how the opulence and decadence of the French aristocracy led to something as drastic as the French Revolution. Commoners didn’t want to put up with such extravagance (and taxation!).

    You also bring up a good point about the commedia dell’arte. Another Rococo painter, Watteau, often depicted themes that were inspired by scenes/characters from the commedia dell’arte. I think that Fragonard’s “love triangle” definitely fits in well with that interpretation.

    @heidenkind: Someone for the beehive! I won’t try to dissuade you. It seems hard to prove what that little detail might actually depict. (And I love the thought of a little freshman heidenkind writing on a Thai Buddhist painting. That’s cute.)

  • @Bob: It could be a dolphin and reference the Gentle Disposition! That’s an interesting observation! Thanks for including those Squinchpix images, too. The dolphin imagery is very interesting to me in this context because it could allude to Venus and love. There is an interesting depiction of Cupid riding on a dolphin from the Augustus of Primaporta statue (see a detail image here).

    I just had a student visit with me yesterday, and she mentioned that she got to visit the Fragonard museum while she did an exchange program in France this past summer. It sounds like a really interesting place. If I’m ever in the mood for seeing lots of pastel colors and silk fabrics, I know where to travel!

  • H Niyazi says:

    @Bob – The playful manner of Fragonard’s figures and the colours should not be mistaken for them being vacuous in content! A lovely example of this is the ‘Progress of Love’ – there’s a superb lecture on it hosted at the NGA Washington podcast page.

    Another factor is that Titian’s mysery paintings were deliberately so, created for a discerning type of client in an era before emblem books unravelled the codices of artists visual language. As Ingrid Rowland once commented, the publication of emblem books such as by Alciatio fairly brought an end to mystery painting. Ambiguities of meaning later had to rely on other factors than iconographical markers alone. eg, dynamic movements, facial expressions, forms of colour

    http://www.nga.gov/podcasts/

    @M – I have the Augustus of Primaporta sitting on my desk! – Augustus used it to remind others of his affinity (and alleged) relation to Venus, I use to remind me of my homeland – Cyprus. That being said, that specific statue was not unearthed until the 19C, though other cupid + dolphin remnants from classical statuary and sarcophagi would have proliferated, esp. in Rome.

    H

  • Hels says:

    Sorry to be off topic.
    To change any detail in the blogs I am following, I go through Design; then Add and Arrange Page Elements; then Save.
    But instead of http://albertis-window.com/, it constantly gives me your old address ie http://albertis-window.blogspot.com/
    I am about ready to throw a shoe through the computer :(

  • Hello H. Niyazi,
    I appreciate your letter because you’ve made my point about Titian more clearly than I made it myself. I disagree (without being disagreeable) that Fragonard’s pictures (which is what I think you meant) are not vacuous in content. Many (not all) of them are and this one certainly is. There are good remarks about all this in Michael Levey’s Rococo to Revolution, (Thames & Hudson, 1977, 115-119). For example: “Clearly he [Fragonard] could have no attitude to, or use for, the historical subject. His mythology is flippantly unlearned – or learnt rather at the Opéra-Comique, where his nymphs have served their amorous apprenticeships.” (118)

    And just because we struggle with the pictorial references of the cupids, the Dolphins, and the frieze of the Three Graces behind the young man’s head, doesn’t mean that his 18th century viewers would have done. Indeed all these references would have been pictorial commonplaces to his patrons. Anyone in that circle who couldn’t recognize a Dolphin and its connection to Aphrodite right off would be like someone who couldn’t recognize a picture of Justin Timberlake today. Those motifs do not convert this picture into something that conveys a hidden or esoteric message or intellectuality of any kind.

    I’m an outsider; not an art historian but a photographer and painter. And so for me it’s curious that, after more than 150 years in which the painted act has come to dominate the center stage of the Art world, that this discussion should attempt to intellectualize the various trivial mythological motifs in this painting while the actual nature of Fragonard’s remarkable painted performance should go completely unremarked. Although I think that this painting IS, in fact, vacuous from the standpoint of content it is anything but vacuous as a painted performance. Anyone who doubts this need only inspect the little dog which is cursorily assembled from a cloud of blobs. The dog, the foliage, the girl and her remarkable clothing came from a world in which drawing is unknown … and unnecessary. This is painting tout court. This is the miracle of Fragonard and everyone with a human heart responds in a similar way.

    The genesis of this painting was to render a genteel peep show – explicitly what the client requested; its exodus gives us an intimation of Bonnard.

  • Hels, oh dear! This site used to automatically forward to my old blog. Even though this site doesn’t automatically forward anymore, I imagine that Google has not yet updated their settings. I’ll see if there is anything I can do on my end, besides suggesting a “ping.” Otherwise, I imagine you’ll need to sit tight and wait for Google to update itself. I’m sorry! I’ll contact you if I figure out anything on my end.

    H and Bob: Interesting discussion! It would be interesting to learn more about Fragonard’s artistic training and how that training could have affected Fragonard’s subject matter, symbolism, etc. Bob, I’m curious to look at that book by Levey (and perhaps read that quote in full context). I’m not quite sure that I agree that Fragonard’s paintings are “flippantly unlearned.” I know that Fragonard was admitted into the Academy and also spent time in Italy.

    However, I actually agree with both of you, for different reasons. I think that Fragonard knew what he was doing in terms of imagery and content- but he might have been lighthearted or sometimes leaned toward superficiality in his use of the imagery. But, that being said, even Fragonard’s superficiality might be contrived: artifice appealed to the French aristocratic society in the 18th century.

  • H Niyazi says:

    @Bob – thank you for your considered response. The greatest lesson I have learnt looking at adaptations of mythological subjects is that they are malleable to the whim of the artist – from a greek vase painter to Twombly!

    A classicist (such as Bettany Hughes) looking at Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ will tell you that it is a tame, watered down of the Dionysian fervour evident in the text.

    Hence, we should be weary to shrug off Fragonard’s adaptation of classical sources, and their Renaissance/Baroque re-iterations as “flippantly unlearned” There is no write or wrong when it comes to adapting these themes, that Fragonard used them to accentuate his perforamance (rendered in colour and light) is simply part of his modus operandi.

    That artists and eras are constantly measured against each other for being better or worse is something for critics to ponder. I simply want to have a deeper understanding of all the factors contributing to an artists approach. Fragonard had access to texts, emblem books and the like – his only excuse for not giving a full representation of the content is that he likely did not think its served his goals in – which was to primarily please his patrons. M said, it wonderfully, a “contrived superficiality” – what better description is there for Roccoco! But peel away that external flippancy and underneath are many delightful little quirks, textual and visual.

    You may be interested in this audio overview of the Medici presented by Bettany Hughes, where she tackles the Renaissance recycling of myth (among many other things)

    http://www.3pipe.net/2010/09/bettany-hughes-amongst-medici-bbc-radio.html

    Kind Regards
    H

  • This discussion has stimulated more thinking on my part about The Swing. I always approach these things from the painter’s perspective and because I admire Fragonard’s extreme economy of means I put some pictures together that illustrate my ideas. You can see the pictures here: https://picasaweb.google.com/edificia00/Fragonard

    First is the detail of the Three Graces (or, at least, what I take to be the Three Graces) in the frieze which is placed on the socle or plinth behind our young lover’s head. I lightened these in Photoshop so that they’re more apparent. But just above and slightly to the right of his head is another couple in amorous embrace (maybe it’s just me) which was, presumably, the happy conclusion to this amiable encounter. The figures are indistinct but it seems incontrovertible to me that the lighter shape stretching from the upper left to the lower right is the lady’s arm wrapped around her lover’s neck. Beyond that, in the further background and on the other side of the two tree trunks is a low contrast and, as far as I’m concerned, uninterpretable piece of statuary. And above the head of the old man pushing the swing, in a lighter background portion of the painting something odd seems to be going on among the tree trunks but I can’t make out what it is.

    Fragonard’s idea for the painting is simplicity itself. It consists of a light area superimposed on a dark area. I show a schematic that illustrates what I mean. The whole painting gives the impression of looking through a keyhole (not that I have any experience of this). In the blurred and desaturated version that I have on Picasa we see Fragonard’s idea more clearly.

    The pattern of darks and lights is always the most important component of a painting and Fragonard then reinforces this with color. Fragonard’s idea for color is also simple: orange on blue.

    Scrumptious! Modifying Eliade’s phrase we may say that Fragonard’s endeavor is to give us something ‘good to see’.

    My position is that we ought to approach paintings the way that the painter approached them. They’re not (for the most part) encyclopaedias but practical problems in appealing to the sensorium.

    If they don’t appeal they don’t sell,

    Best

    Bob Consoli

  • Really interesting images, Bob! I’ve never noticed the detail of figures kissing in the background! That’s quite intriguing!

    I think your idea of looking through a keyhole is especially interesting, since it ties into the voyeurism and eroticism that pervades Rococo art. Plus, I think the composition just adds to the idea of intimacy, since the main subject is focused in that smaller, central area. You’ve brought up some great points about how Fragonard’s art is construed to appeal to the senses. “Scrumptious” is a great word for this painting!

    P.S. Thanks for the link to the Levey book. My university library has a copy on the shelf right now. I’m going to go and hunt it down.

  • Angela Wescott says:

    So it seems most agree that this is a fish, not a beehive, and I do too, but I thought it was interesting that the fish really looks nothing like a dolphin to me. After a cursory google search for “cupid dolphin” in images, what should pop up but a work by Rubens (Rococo = Rubenistes!)showing a dolphin that looks incredibly similar to the fish Fragonard portrays here. Check the link- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Cupid_Riding_a_Dolphin_-_WGA20445.jpg
    Perhaps this strengthens the fish argument over that of the beehive. This is not to say that Fragonard knew of this particular work (commissioned by Philip IV and executed by Rubens, who was working with many Northern European painters to create a larger series of works, during which many sketches were produced) but visually it is an interesting similarity.

  • Hi Angela! Thanks for commenting! I’m sorry I didn’t notice your comment earlier.

    Wow, that is a really, really interesting connection with Rubens’ “dolphin.” I agree: this seems to really strengthen the argument that a fish is being depicted. Very cool.

  • For what it’s worth, and a little late, has anyone noticed that the old man is Fragonard? He’s very similar to Fragonard’s self-portraits, a round chubby face, balding with curly hair. I won’t go into details but obviously the meaning changes…

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.