Monday, August 24, 2009


A piece in the current issue of The Economist
(which has just come up on-line in the e-mail reminder) is about London's Wallace Collection:
The generously proportioned rooms envelop one of the great surviving privately formed collections of 18th-century French art, furniture and gold boxes. This ensemble of opulent objects and lyrical pictures is displayed in rooms “papered” with intensely coloured silks. Crimson, emerald, coral and sapphire walls sing in harmony with the glazes of the Sèvres porcelain for which the collection is justly famous.
Only in passing does the piece remind us of one of the star attractions:
There are also gold boxes, elaborate gilded bronze mounted clocks, paintings by Boucher (including his portrait of Madame de Pompadour [see above] ... , Watteau and Fragonard. The latter’s famous “Swing” appears simultaneously light-hearted, lascivious and cruel.
The main cruelty there is denying us the main event, which we came for. So here she is:

And she is gorgeous.

On one level, it is the eternal triangle: the young miss between her sugar-daddy (who, for an additional frisson, is togged out sub-fusc, and possibly as a priest) and the young swain. Cupid looks on:
he is a statue well-known at the time, Falconet's Silencing Cupid, and pointedly owned by Madame de Pompadour, patron of artists and the King's official mistress.

At the height of her swing the girl loses, or kicks off her shoe --
which, apparently, implies the loss of virginity -- towards the Cupid, who is shushing her. The young man is, ambiguously, hiding in the undergrowth or caught in a thorn-bush, presumably to imply his torment. He is lying with a rake, which may imply his intentions are less than honourable. Then we notice his pose: it is that of Michelangelo's Adam from the Sistine Chapel:

Almost inevitably there has to be a story behind this picture.

Gabriel-François Doyen made a belated reputation for himself, bashing out religious themes (he had the good sense to relocate to Catherine II's St Petersburg in the French Revolution). On 2nd October 1767, when he was really making a name for himself, he fell in with the playwright and songsmith Charles Collé, who was keeping a diary (published in 1805, to the great surprise of all those who had confided in

Collé records that Doyen had been taken aback by a visit to a noble courtier (probably the Baron de Saint-Julien, who was Receiver-General of the Clergy)
who had been accompanied by his bit-on-the-side:
"He started by flattering me with compliments", began Doyen, "and ended by assuring me that he was anxious to have me create an image, the idea of which he was going to outline.

" 'I should like Madame (indicating his mistress) on a swing which a bishop is pushing. You will depict me in such a way that I would be able to see the legs of the lovely girl, and even better, if you want to spice up your painting a bit more ...'

"I confess, M. Doyen said to me, that this proposal, which I wouldn't have conceived possible, ... perplexed me and left me speechless for a moment. I pulled myself together and said to him almost straight off: 'Ah! Monsieur! One should improve on the basic notion of your image by making Madame's shoes fly off and having some cupids catch them.' "
It was not Doyen's line-of-work, so he passed the idea on to Fragonard, who himself was in transition from religious scenes to more spicy stuff.

The scene is sheer voyeurism, but, as with all rococo, we can look closely for hidden meanings.

The scene is a garden, which takes us all the way back to Genesis, via the implications of The Roman de la Rose and similar texts. We have lots of roses: not just a feminine symbol but a reminder of the transience of beauty, which is another reading of the gnarled oak tree from which the swing, and its split-second image here, depends. The sculpted putti are riding one of the dolphins which pulled Aphrodite's chariot, and thereby imply that the situation has an unchanging eternal nature. The pet dog, a symbol of animal passion, tries to climb the fence and yaps at the girl.

Fragonard knew he had a winner here, and did the subject three times. The version in the Wallace Collection was the original, first owned by the Baron Bollioud de Saint-Julien, then sold to the Duke of Morny, on whose death in 1788 it was acquired by Sir Richard Wallace. The girl in a blue dress is owned by Edmond James de Rothschild; and a smaller version by Duc Jules de Polignac. Nicholas De Launay did an engraving of the picture (and advertised it for nine livres in 1789), when it seems to have acquired its longer title: Les Hazards Heureux de L'escarpolette.

The Economist does us well with its "cultural" stuff.
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1 comment:

yourcousin said...

I'm not a real arts buff, but I do enjoy your forrays into the subject.

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