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Playful Constructions and Fragonard's Swinging Scenes

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 33, Number 4, Summer 2000
pp. 543-559 | 10.1353/ecs.2000.0042

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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 543-559

Figures

Happy Hazards of the Swing is Jean-Honoré Fragonard's most familiar painting, held to be highly representative of its time, a paradigm of rococo pleasure and aristocratic decadence (fig.1). Since 1982, when Donald Posner published his compelling analysis of the swinging-woman motif, interpretation of the scene has been guided by iconographic readings of female fickleness and erotic love. An emblematic tradition denoting inconstancy partially informs depictions of swinging women. Yet, when taken as a solution to an iconographic puzzle, such an interpretation does not account for nuances of difference where significance often lies. Fragonard painted not one but three versions of a woman's ride on a swing (figs. 3 and 6). He varied his approach to the theme on each of these canvases. For this artist at least, the swing was not simply a stock motif suited to easy interpretation and execution, unaltered by compositional change. On the contrary, by elaborating on the notion of swinging as a game of visual distortion, Fragonard manipulated and transformed emblematic conventions in order to muse on the vertiginous experience occasioned by a playful application of paint.

Fragonard and his contemporaries were familiar with a range of artistic and cultural codes relating to swings. This article considers these codes and explores how and in what ways they operate in relation to Fragonard's depictions of the amusement. When Fragonard represented swinging women, he engaged artistic and emblematic traditions linking the subject matter to aristocratic leisure and love. His paintings test and challenge the viewer's recognition of sources, a skill valued among eighteenth-century amateurs. To seize upon a recognized motif as an exclusive key to meaning, however, ignores the transformative character of art making and neglects the formative effects on the artist and the viewer of specific historical and social landscapes. Indeed, the concept of closure is inimical to the essentially open-ended character of play. Fragonard's constructions with paint are linked to concepts, some emblematic, some experienced codes of daily life, but meaning is not exhausted by one or even all of these. Instead, his images insist upon a sequence of free associations that is in the nature of play, keeping interpretation alive and presenting an imaginative exchange as central to aesthetic judgment.

The fundamental force of play in Fragonard's approach to art making exists in tandem with the eroticism of his brush explored by Mary Sheriff in her groundbreaking monograph. Focusing on the artist's and the viewer's knowledge of signs and codes outside the framework of traditional emblematics, Sheriff's semiotic analyses have extended the location of meaning into Fragonard's manner of depiction, assigning it a privileged role in the signifying process. My proposals here are not an attempt to replace her conclusions, but rather to enhance them with an exploration of Fragonard's playful aesthetic. I will argue that his manner of constructing certain images beckons the viewer as playmate. In this signifying game, images about play become acts of creative play operating at the highest level of imagination for both the artist and the beholder.

The aims of this essay are threefold. First, to reposition our understanding of Fragonard's depictions of swings within a pertinent cultural context of play. Eighteenth-century sources disclose a distinct interest in games that privilege spectatorship and optical distortion and have yet to be taken into account. Second, to offer a model for viewing Fragonard's scenes with swinging women through a consideration of the full range and potential of meanings. In these images ostensibly depicting the same subject matter, we will see how the artist moves between a variety of perspectives on play: from the physical and the social, to the emblematic, to the aesthetic. Third, to identify the specific and elaborate analogies between play and art that are evident in these images. I suggest that Fragonard's swinging scenes invite the viewer to participate in a visual game that not only resembles the depicted amusement, but also arouses the imagination and the senses, and operates to recommence the game at every instant.

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"Everyone knows the swing," wrote Rétif de la Bretonne in...



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