Sunday, October 4, 2009

"The Happy Accidents of the Swing"

WARNING: This post could be construed as vulgar or at the very least provocative. Do not read any further if you might be offended.

I really enjoy the risque "intrigue" paintings from the Rococo period. So it was not a hard choice to make when I chose Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "The Happy Accidents of the Swing" (Les Hasards Heureux de l'Escarpolette), which he painted in 1766, as the subject for an art history assignment. I learned much about 18th century symbolism along the way. Bear with me as I bare all of the dirty little secrets.

Ah! The scene is a tranquil park full of trees, bushes and flowers in bloom. Just look at the details that Fragonard put into this lovely scene: the flower petals, the leaves, the trellis and fountain in the far distance.

In the background we see a statue of two cupids riding a dolphin which symbolizes "the impatient surge of love" much like Ovid described in Metamorphoses. [1]

In the foreground we see a pretty, young woman being pushed in a swing by an older man, possibly a bishop.

The painting was possibly commissioned by a member of the clery which might explain the appearance of the older gentleman. Baron de Saint-Julien, Receiver General for the French Clergy, owned the original painting until his death in 1788. [2] At one point he was considered to have been the patron.

Unbeknown to the gentleman, the young woman's lover is hiding in the rose bushes in front of and below her. The cupid statue to the left is holding a finger over his mouth as if saying "your secret is safe with me!"

Her lover is in the perfect position for a private show. He can see her milky thighs and pink garter belt. The implied back and forth motion of the swing elicits imagery of sexual intercourse. With each swing, she spreads her legs a little wider apart.

At this point, the 18th century women would have been blushing and the men would have been quite, *ahem*, interested.

Her lover gasps as his heart skips a beat. He can hardly believe his eyes. She has opened her legs to the point where he can see past her "frothy dress of cream and juicy pink" [1] and chemise, all the way to her hidden pink rose: her vulva!

In the 18th century, the only undergarment worn by anyone was a chemise; yes, even the men wore them back then. I had to include the quoted description of the dress because it sounds so similar to the description of female genitalia, which I almost expounded.

The young lover is holding his left arm erect and holding his hat in his hand.

At this point the men would have taken their hats off and would be holding them in front of their groin!
Fragonard could not show the young man with an erection as that would have been vulgar, so he did the next best thing. The hat could further reinforce the penile imagery but I believe that it represented a condom, or English redingote [3], because such contraceptive measures have been used since the Egyptian era. [4]

She opens her legs wider and wider with each arc. Her lover thrusts towards her.

Be careful son or you will prick your -- self on a thorn.

She reaches the climax -- of the arc. She extends her leg in ecstasy and she lets out a little sigh as her shoe is released from her beautiful foot.

The shoe is the female counterpart of the hat. A bare foot and a flying shoe in French paintings of the period symbolized lost virginity just like the more common symbol of a broken pitcher.

Bonus: If you have not done so yet, open this link in a new tab or window. Above the lover and to the right of the base of the cupid statue is what appears to be a couple embracing and engaged in a long kiss.

1. "Fragonard's The Happy Accidents of the Swing." ART at the SUNY Oneonta. State University of New York, College at Oneonta, Web. 4 Oct 2009. <>.
2. Labedzki, Annette "His Most Famous Painting (The Swing) - Jean-Honore Fragonard." His Most Famous Painting (The Swing) - Jean-Honore Fragonard. 9 Aug. 2009. 4 Oct 2009 <>.
3. Guyotjeannin, C. "[The history of the contraceptive sheath][Contracept Fertil Sex]." MEDLINE (1984): n. pag. Web. 4 Oct 2009. <>.
4. "History of Sex Timeline." Durex. SSL International PLC, Web. 4 Oct 2009. <>.

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