Jean Honoré Fragonard
The Wallace Collection
by Dr Yuriko Jackall
Head of the Curatorial Department & Curator of French paintings
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Swing),
c. 1767, After treatment. (c) The Wallace Collection.
La version française est disponible ici.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) is without doubt the most important French painter of the eighteenth century. His loose brushwork, bold colour combinations, and joyous subject matter reverberate in the work of successive generations of artists, from Impressionists Auguste Renoir or Berthe Morisot — who proudly claimed a family lineage — in the nineteenth century, to Flora Yukhnovich in the twenty-first. However — despite the resounding echoes of his aesthetic — Fragonard (and indeed the entire painterly manner he embodied, the Rococo) is frequently dismissed as frivolous, insipid, and therefore irrelevant. Re-evaluating this negative perception was thus a driving force behind my major recent project ‘Conserving The Swing’ at the Wallace Collection, London in 2021.
The painting in question, one of the museum’s most famous works, was made by Fragonard in about 1767, at a pivotal moment of his career. He had already begun to chafe against the rigid constrictions of the French Académie royal de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), and in taking up this commission — one so scandalous that another painter had already rejected it —, he surely sought to break away from the constraints of academic life altogether. The result shows a woman sitting on a swing at the very heart of a shadowy glade, her leg provocatively extended causing a little pink shoe to fly off her foot and arc its way across the canvas. Below her, a young man looks up adoringly. Behind her, an older man operates the movements of the swing.
On the surface, this merry scene of love in a garden setting appears emblematic of the sugary Rococo prettiness for which Fragonard is decried. The textured flowers and foliage, the floating folds of the pink dress, even the careful rendering of the stockinged toes all contribute a sense of the anecdotal, of the diminutive. In this painting about enjoyment and play — the central figure literally sits on a child’s toy —, there is no evident moral at work. In this sense, the painting perfectly aligns with the characterisation of Fragonard as an artist whose output was limited to shallow depictions of pleasure.
During the summer of 2021, The Swing was sensitively restored. The removal of yellowed varnish and old areas of retouching transformed the canvas, returning a new sense of freshness and vibrancy to the paint surface. Without the flattening, discoloured varnish, the painting took on an enhanced sense of depth and perspective emerged. Moreover, this process offered an unprecedented opportunity for close looking, making apparent numerous details that had previously gone unremarked. It quickly became clear that Fragonard had a much more nuanced vision for this painting, and a more complex working process, than had previously been understood.
These findings, along with the revised interpretation of the painting they afford, are now being written up for publication. But to celebrate the successful conclusion of the conservation project, I also invited eleven special guests to offer their own interpretations of the painting, via a series of online talks called Serendipitous Conversations about the Rococo. Organised around key themes arising from the painting — Pink, Identity, Fashion, Play, and The Libertine — these talks brought to the topic a host of exciting voices, from visual artists to theatre designers. The speakers represented a diverse range of professional and lived experiences, but they all engage with the rococo in their daily working lives — and shape their own visions of it. For instance, ‘Fashion’ featured haute couture designer Sami Nouri, who arrived in France as a refugee from Afghanistan, trained with John Galliano and Jean-Paul Gaultier and now oversees his own atelier in Paris. French specialist of libertine literature and recent inductee to the Académie française, Chantal Thomas, is also a novelist who places women at the heart of her works, such as Les Adieux à la Reine (Farewell, My Queen). Uniting these varied perspectives in these free talks, was a major step toward demonstrating the continuing relevance of The Swing, and the rococo aesthetic in general.
Funds for the conservation of The Swing were generously provided to the Wallace Collection by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. To watch a film documenting the conservation process and to view the talks mentioned above, visit https://www.wallacecollection.org/the-swing/.