Immortalising Infidelity


Among the many great masterpieces of the world of art, the 18th-century oil painting known as ‘The Swing’ or L’Escarpolette in French has fascinated the world for three centuries. It is truly a beautiful work of art, with its classical style and soothing, yet striking colour palette.

The original title of this painting is Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette in French.

The great master behind this masterpiece is the French painter Jean-Honore Fragonard and it is considered his best work and one of the greatest masterpieces of the Rococo era of art.

Although this beautiful painting has a fairytale-like appearance, and a soothing effect, it is not what it seems to be. It has a deeper and rather interesting story veiled. As many masterpieces do, this piece too is not what it seems to be.

Let us understand the story behind The Swing.

The artist

Fragonard is a French painter who lived from 1732 to 1806. He was also a printmaker and considered a greatly talented artist who produced a couple of masterpieces. His paintings display characteristics of the Rococo style of art and architecture.

The painting Colours and the style

What is striking about the painting is the use of colours. The artists created magic through their use of colours. One can realise that the artist’s understanding of the colour theory and how colours work with each other has been beyond excellence. Unless one has mastered the colour theory, a similar effect cannot be achieved.

In this painting, Fragonard has mainly used a soft smooth tone of blue and green hues and a mixture of warm greens, yellows, and cool blues, greens, and greys. The background has a dreamy look.

The main focus is on the young lady on the swing and to highlight her, the artist has played so well with colours. She is painted in various tones of orange, peach, pink, and a bit of yellow and red. These colours are complementary colours of greens and blues, thus creating a magical effect on the canvas. The central female figure is the central focus of the painting from every angle and distance. This use of colour makes her figure pop out of the canvas, actually creating a look as if her swing is really animating.

The story behind The Swing

The most exciting part of this painting is the story it hides. Although the painting seems to be angelic, soothing, magical, and innocent, it is actually not.

What exactly does this painting mean? Is it just an innocent scene of a lady enjoying a swing?

The Swing is all about infidelity; infidelity of a married woman and her lover. The one who is behind the swing is her husband while the one who is in front of the swing is her lover. The scene takes place in a beautiful garden. The figures around her including the little dog, the statues (note their facial expressions and body language), and her flying shoe, all have hidden meanings.

The lady’s shoe is flying in the air and her feet are raised up. The man, her lover, who is beneath her, looks astonished. His facial expressions and gaze tell us all about where his eyes are focused. His face is even lighted and looks rosy. The artist has used the same colour tone of the lady’s on his face, highlighting the link between the two.

In this period, showing a woman’s ankle was considered indecent. In The Swing, her ankle is visible and it is pointed toward the lover, and not towards her husband.

The husband, who is older than the lover, is the one who has control over the strings of the swing. He is sitting in the dark, unaware of what is happening on the other side, holding the strings, looking at her wife, with a gentle smile. The little white dog sitting close to the husband, probably his master, barks at the wife. He looks alert and tense. Dogs are symbols of loyalty, honesty, and true friendship and it is threatened.

The statue in front of the lady is keeping his finger over his lips as he is protecting a secret. The other two figures, behind her, in the dark, look startled and sad. They both are on the side of the husband and the dog.

Why was this painted?

If one looks carefully, the ropes tied around the branches of a large tree are visible. The ropes are tangled and tied hard around a strong tree. However, the ropes are being operated by the man, or the husband sitting in the dark. The one who is actually sitting on the swing, the lady or his wife, is moving in the opposite direction of the husband. He pulls the swing back to make it move forward. As the swing moves forward, the lady extends her feet, while leaning backward. Her face looks happy and bright while her eyes are focused on the man below her.

He is almost hidden beneath the ‘overgrown rose’ bush. Now, remember that roses are symbols of romance and here, it is an overgrown bush. His wide-open eyes are focused on the lady’s wide opened skirt. That again, symbolises the erotic nature of the relationship between the lovers, compared to the matured and rather stagnated relationship between the lady and her husband. The colours and the lighting suggest the nature of the two relationships.

It is reported that people of this time (18th century Europe), requests artists to paint scenes of their lovers or secret romances, of an erotic nature. This painting, though it is not considered erotic in today’s sense, was considered very erotic and secretive during that time. This painting was requested by a gentleman of the court to paint his mistress in the swing, and him admiring her below.

To date, the figures are not identified. However, their rich attire, and the beautiful garden in the background suggest that they were aristocrats of the society.

Now you may wonder why these were painted. It was a time when printed photographs and mobile phones were not available. Those who enjoyed infidelity enjoyed getting themselves painted in playful and erotic scenes with their lovers and would display them in their private rooms. Thus, these paintings are small in size. The Swing is 81 by 64.2 centimetres in size. It is also reported that such paintings were allowed to be viewed by the close circle of the patron and they would admire and enjoy the essence of romance, lust, pleasure, and passion in utter secrecy.

The Swing was so popular that it was reproduced by other artists and was circulated among a wider group of elite, aristocratic society, allowing them to indulge themselves in secret pleasures of infidelity and eroticism.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy