‘If the skies are grey, I look at The Swing and everything turns rosy’

The Swing, 1767, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), 32in by 25in, The Wallace Collection, London

Stephen Jones says:
‘Why do I love The Swing? I think my love affair with French Rococo started as a teenager, when my mother took me to Waddesdon, the Rothschilds’ wonderful Rococo-filled manor house in Buckinghamshire. There, I discovered my love of the sinuous line and the asymmetric. I think I came upon this painting in my first year at Saint Martins, in 1976, and the sly joke of the fact that he’s looking directly up her skirt always amused me. But it was also the colouring, the whimsy, the handling of the paint on the leaves all these things I loved! I included it in Riverside, a TV programme I made in 1982 about my influences, so it’s been with me for a very long time. If the skies are grey, I look at The Swing and everything turns rosy ’

Stephen Jones is a British milliner, whose whimsical creations have crowned the heads of trendsetters from Diana, Princess of Wales, to Dita Von Teese.

John McEwen comments:
This is Fragonard’s most famous painting. The 4th Marquess of Hertford bought it for his collection, which was bequeathed to the nation in 1897 by the widow of his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace. There it remains on free permanent view, the Wallace trustees (unlike those of Glasgow’s Burrell and Philadelphia’s Barnes) honouring the conditions of the bequest, that nothing in the collection can be loaned.

The Swing epitomises the douceur de vivre and prettiness of the high 18th-century Rococo (Fr. rocaille, ‘rock garden’) style. It was commissioned by the baron de Saint-Julien. The baron is the shielded lover and his spotlit young mistress, tantalisingly beyond his reach, is the star of this erotic fantasy. The oblivious old man pulling the swing was originally meant to be a bishop, perhaps a jovial reference to the baron’s sinecure as Receiver General of the French Clergy. Fragonard prefers to show a layman, sometimes identified as the cuckolded husband.

Fragonard was born in Provençal Grasse, the son of a glovemaker, but the family soon moved to Paris, where he studied under Boucher and Chardin. He won the Prix de Rome and travelled throughout Italy. His eclecticism matched his virtuosity, which made him artistically much more than a master of Rococo, an ironic term coined in the 19th century.

He survived the Revolution by absenting himself in Grasse during the Terror and then through the protection of his younger friend Jacques-Louis David, art dictator of the Republic, but his identification with the Ancien Régime finished his career. It’s said he died after a stroll in the Champ de Mars eating an ice cream.

This article was originally published in Country Life, March 4, 2015