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Richard Rand, “Jean-Honoré Fragonard/The Swing/c. 1775/1780,” Focus Section – French Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/46116 (accessed August 19, 2017).

 

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Entry

The monumental canvases of Blindman's Buff [fig. 1] and The Swing, which must be counted among the greatest achievements in eighteenth-century French landscape painting, have been associated since their rediscovery in the early nineteenth century. Nearly identical in height, they present similar views of vast and fecund picturesque gardens, peopled with elegantly dressed men, women, and children playing games, conversing, promenading, and dining in an exuberant natural environment. The myriad details in each — bubbling fountains, shadowy sculptures, overgrown flower beds, rushing cascades, soaring trees, and towering cloud-filled skies — put the viewer’s eye in constant motion in, around, and between the two compositions. Blindman’s Buff was intended to hang to the left of The Swing, as indicated by the trellises covered with red and pink flowers that appear in the lower right and lower left corners of each composition. When seen side by side the paintings can be appreciated as one panoramic composition, centered on a great mound surmounted by a geyser and flanked by dramatic vistas to either side. Laboratory analysis has dispelled the notion, first advanced by Pierre de Nolhac, that the pictures were originally a single canvas that has been cut in two.[1] The Swing, which is slightly narrower than Blindman’s Buff, shows indications of having been cropped along its left edge, so that originally the two canvases must have been precisely the same size.[2]

Landscape — particularly gardens — formed a significant aspect of Fragonard’s oeuvre. While little documentation or contemporaneous commentary have survived, such works were admired and appreciated during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, as his early biographer, Charles Le Carpentier, indicated:

When this artist wished to be true to himself, he created delicious landscapes where one always finds the memory and the image of nature. They are remarkable above all by their astonishing effect of light and the beautiful forms of their terracing. His trees are treated with taste. . . . Could anyone better understand the magic of the skies he paints so exquisitely, and seize the beautiful effects that nature reveals only after a storm, or when a cloudy and nebulous sky lets a few sunrays dart to the ground.[3]

Le Carpentier’s comment that such paintings evoked a “memory” of nature was astute, for Blindman’s Buff and The Swing are replete with reminders of the fabulous gardens that Fragonard first depicted when he was a student at the Académie de France in Rome from 1756 to 1761. Fragonard’s experience of Italy had sparked his interest in landscape drawing and painting, an inclination he developed on numerous drawing excursions throughout Rome and the Italian countryside. The most remarkable results of these efforts are the extraordinary red chalk drawings of the gardens of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, where the artist stayed for several weeks in the summer of 1760 as the guest of the Abbé de Saint-Non [fig. 2]. The towering cypresses and overgrown bowers, lively fountains, and stunning vistas that characterized the d’Este gardens reappear in Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, even if the works are in no way topographical. While it has proved impossible to find specific garden sources for the paintings, certain motifs — such as the sculpture — can be linked with known prototypes.[4] Fragonard’s method in his garden paintings was not to record a site precisely but to re-create imaginatively a sense of the character of a place he and his patrons may have visited. Attempting to identify the garden scenes in these two paintings would be fruitless and alien to the artist’s method and purpose.[5]

Blindman’s Buff and The Swing were produced long after Fragonard’s initial trip to Italy. The artist’s technique in these works is free and expansive, with little of the precise brushwork and devotion to detail that characterize the smaller landscapes he produced in Italy and shortly after his return to Paris in 1761.[6] The paint was applied thinly — some passages are nearly transparent washes of color — with only discrete areas of impasto in some of the brushwork defining clothing and foliage. This fluid technique recalls the fresh and confident ink wash drawings that Fragonard made for his patron, Pierre Jacques Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt (1715 – 1785), on a second trip to Italy in 1773 – 1774.[7] The example illustrated here [fig. 3], representing an unidentified park probably in the vicinity of Rome, demonstrates the artist’s brilliance at capturing a sense of light and atmosphere and conveys the spontaneity and transience of nature more convincingly than the red chalk drawings made at Tivoli in the previous decade.[8] The drawing’s complex composition, with its artful massing of trees and combination of views peopled with a variety of figures, anticipates the style and imagery of Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, which the artist executed in Paris shortly after the second trip to Italy. It is probable that they date from the last years of the 1770s.[9]

The grand scale and broad, freely handled technique suggest that the paintings were conceived as decorations to be installed into the paneling on the wall of a salon.[10] As with so much of Fragonard’s oeuvre, the early history of these resplendent landscapes is unknown, and no contemporaneous comments about them have been discovered, yet they surely must have been one of the artist’s most important commissions, on a par with — in terms of ambition of design and execution, if not of patron — The Progress of Love series (New York, Frick Collection) executed in the early 1770s for Madame du Barry. Georges Wildenstein identified the paintings with two works listed in the estate inventory of the Abbé de Saint-Non, drawn up in 1792, which described two landscapes “made in Italy” with figures enjoying the game of La Main chaude (hot cockles) and playing on a Balançoire (either a swing or a seesaw).[11] Later scholars have rejected this association, however; the National Gallery’s paintings were not “done in Italy,” and it is highly unlikely that the game of blindman’s buff (in French, Colin-maillard) would have been confused with the very different “la main chaude” described in the inventory. Moreover, the two landscapes belonging to Saint-Non can be identified with other works by Fragonard.[12] The first confirmed record of the Washington paintings was made in 1845, when they were described in the collection of the marquis de Cypierre.

A clue to the paintings’ original purpose may be found in their relationship to another of Fragonard’s masterpieces of garden painting, the so-called Fête at Saint-Cloud, also datable to the late 1770s [fig. 4]. This large canvas, which is precisely the same height as Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, also depicts a panoramic view of a garden or parkland populated by numerous figures engaged in varied activities amid fountains, sculptures, and lush foliage. The traditional provenance of Fête at Saint-Cloud — that it was commissioned by the duc de Penthièvre for the Hôtel de Toulouse in Paris (now the Banque de France, where the painting still hangs) — is uncertain, and the possibility exists, as Pierre Rosenberg first observed, that it was part of a larger decorative scheme that included Blindman’s Buff, The Swing, and perhaps two other garden scenes in the National Gallery of Art, A Game of Horse and Rider [fig. 5] and A Game of Hot Cockles [fig. 6].[13] Although their later provenances are different, the similarities in scale, style, and subject matter suggest that these five pictures were conceived as a series and, like the Frick Progress of Love, cannot be understood fully unless treated together as a decorative program.[14]

Sets of landscapes often served for interior decoration in the eighteenth century. In the 1770s and 1780s Hubert Robert (French, 1733 - 1808) was among the most prolific such decorators, creating suites of landscapes and ruin paintings for the interiors of his patrons’ hôtels particuliers and maisons de plaisance.[15] Fragonard is known to have painted many decorative pictures, often in pairs or series, but no ensemble survives intact in its original location.[16] Regarding the five garden paintings now divided between the National Gallery and the Banque de France, Paris, Rosenberg has proposed that they may originate from the collection of Marchal de Sainscy, whose 1789 sale catalogue describes a group of landscapes as follows:

H. Fragonnard [sic]. Five large pictures by this artist, designed and executed to decorate the walls of a salon; they represent diverse landscape subjects with varied and graceful sites, and are embellished with interesting figures.[17]

While the identification must remain speculative, the circumstantial evidence assembled by Rosenberg is provocative.[18] The consignor of the 1789 sale, Louis René Marchal de Sainscy, had acquired much of his collection in 1782 from his father, Louis Pierre Sébastien Marchal de Sainscy, along with the family’s primary residence in the rue des Fossés-Montmartre in Paris. Louis Pierre fits the profile of the sort of connoisseur who was purchasing works by Fragonard in the 1760s and 1770s. A noted collector, he was governor of Abbeville, maître d’hôtel du roi, and econome general du clergé, a title inherited by his only son Louis René. The son’s own immense wealth was increased when he married into a family of fermiers généraux in 1779.[19] Yet both Louis Pierre’s and Louis René’s fortunes reversed precipitously in the wake of financial reforms initiated by Charles Alexandre Calonne, the king’s controller-general of finance, forcing father and son to sell their property and leave Paris in 1788. The subsequent sale of the collection in 1789 revealed their particular interest in large-scale paintings by contempo­rary French artists (along with smaller easel pictures by French, Italian, and Dutch masters), including numerous works that were clearly meant to be integrated into the architectural framework of the house. Among these are four overdoors by François Boucher (French, 1703 - 1770), two more of ruins by Robert, and three large scenes from the hunt, “made for the decoration of a salon,” by Francesco Casanova (Italian, c. 1732/1733 - 1803).[20] The five Fragonard landscapes were also described as having this purpose, although it is unclear whether they were designed specifically for the Sainscy residence or whether they had been purchased from another collection. The varying shapes and sizes of the Washington and Paris paintings (beyond the current reduced dimensions of The Swing, Hot Cockles, and Horse and Rider) make better sense if imagined surrounded by boiseries, windows, and doorways. Given that the Fragonard paintings can be dated on stylistic grounds to the late 1770s, the father, Louis Pierre, most likely acquired them from the artist. Rosenberg has suggested that the paintings do not appear in an inventory drawn up in 1782 on the sale of the house and collection from Louis Pierre to his son Louis René simply because, being mural decorations, they would not have been noted as separate property by the auditors.[21] The three Casanova scenes from the hunt, which are similar in scale and shape to the Fragonards and therefore may have been part of a complementary decoration scheme, went similarly uninventoried.[22] In the end, neither the large Casanovas nor the five Fragonards found buyers in the 1789 sale, possibly because of their scale (they were likely unframed) and the necessity of hanging them as a pair. The fate of the Washington canvases is unknown until they appeared at auction in Paris in 1845. Fête at Saint-Cloud may have remained at rue des Fossés-Montmartre (the site of the 1789 sale) and transferred to the Hôtel de Toulouse when the Banque de France acquired the Sainscy house in 1806.

When seen together, Fragonard’s five paintings share a vision of the garden and park as a commodious setting for all sorts of festivities and amusements as well as amorous dalliance. The various games and entertainments incorporated into Fragonard’s garden paintings were relatively common features of landscape painting in the middle and late eighteenth century.[23] They are part of a tradition made popular by Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 - 1721) and Nicolas Lancret (French, 1690 - 1743), who frequently included figures playing games and socializing in gardens or parklands. Lancret’s pendants at the Château de Sans-Souci, Berlin [fig. 7] [fig. 8], although much smaller than Fragonard’s grand landscapes, combine similar amusements — blindman’s buff, dining in the outdoors, and swinging — in a fecund garden decorated with terraces, sculptures, and fountains.[24] Fragonard himself treated the games depicted in Blindman’s Buff and The Swing numerous times, especially in small cabinet pictures like the famous Swing in the Wallace Collection, London.[25]

While such amusements undoubtedly were enjoyed in eighteenth-century France, modern scholarship has focused on the symbolic meanings that they must have conveyed to viewers of paintings. Fragonard’s juxtaposition of the games of Blindman’s Buff and swinging was pointed, for both activities have been interpreted as alluding to the progress of love. Blindman’s Buff — with its blind protagonist awkwardly seeking a mate — corresponded to the difficulties of courtship, while the rhythmic motion of The Swing — propelled by a companion who pulls on ropes — suggests the culminating act of love.[26] The lush, picturesque gardens, with their overripe blossoms, spurting fountains, and provocative sculptures, underscore the amorous associations of the games. The sculptures that Watteau frequently incorporated into his fêtes galante have been interpreted as commenting on the scenes of flirtation and love.[27] Fragonard may have intended much the same meaning:  the fountain to the left in Blindman’s Buff  has been described as representing Vestal Virgins, calculated to contrast with the folly of love, embodied in the blindfolded player who spins aimlessly.[28] The enchanting detail of the woman looking through a telescope in The Swing suggested to Eisler a contrast between “idle curiosity for what is beyond her with her oblivion to what surrounds her.”[29]

Nevertheless, the small size of the figures and their lack of detail might make them ill-suited as bearers of complex meaning, and it is possible that they were included to add visual interest to the landscapes themselves. These works occasionally have been described as characteristic of the sublime in nature, as almost protoromantic in sensibility: “What set out to be a topical scene [Fête at Saint-Cloud] . . . has become a wild poem about the strength of natural forces and puny man.”[30] Fragonard’s figures do indeed appear small, but they are fully integrated into their hospitable surroundings, and one could claim just as persuasively that his garden settings, far from posing a threat, encourage the pursuit of a host of idle pleasures, both public and private: carnival sideshows, swinging, aristocratic parlor games (hot cockles and blindman’s buff), rough children’s play (horse and rider), puppet shows, and picnicking. These paintings are foremost images of people enjoying the outdoors; that, after all, was the purpose of gardens and parks that, unlike wild nature, were to be accommodating to the promenader. Louis Carogis de Carmontelle, in his explication of the Parc Monceau, designed in the late 1770s for the duc de Chartres, insisted that “despite the charms offered by the countryside, it is only in the garden where one finds good living — the hunt, games, concerts, entertainments; that is what we desire and that is what we praise.”[31] Jennifer Milam has argued that the National Gallery versions of blindman’s buff and swinging, in which the landscapes dominate, should be understood less in conventional overt erotic terms and more as playful re-creations of the exhilarating amusements they represent. “The swing becomes a vehicle of physical and mental transport, serving to move the figure and the viewer into the alternative playlands of leisure and art.”[32] Leisure activities, whether playing games, promenading through a picturesque garden, or a combination of both, had come to define aristocratic culture in the late eighteenth century.

The five paintings are a summation of Fragonard’s lifelong exploration of the theme of the garden. Grand in scale, they are complex and elaborate visualizations of “unadorned” nature in which the compositions, chiaroscuro, brushwork, and activities of the figures re-create the infinite variety of motifs and range of effects that characterized the picturesque garden in eighteenth-century France. In these works Fragonard brought together a diversity of garden types, including a French public park in Fête at Saint-Cloud, a vast estate inspired by the gardens of Italy in Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, and two intimate corners of private gardens, one picturesque, one formal, in A Game of Horse and Rider and A Game of Hot Cockles.

Fragonard’s innovative compositions reflect a remarkable sensitivity toward the character of the picturesque, or “English,” garden that was gaining popularity in France during these years.[33] The panoramic breadth of Blindman’s Buff and The Swing allows for the inclusion of a variety of distinct areas of visual interest, from the exhilarating vista, to a distant peak at the right, to the equally long view into the further reaches of the garden at the left, where a tiny group of strollers — captured in a beam of sunlight — parades among the trees (recalling the background boaters in Horse and Rider). In between, Fragonard has arranged a series of disparate focal points that the viewer is encouraged to examine as the canvases are surveyed: a game of blindman’s buff, lovers reclining in bushes, a group finishing a meal, a man and woman washing a dog in a fountain, a woman on a swing observed by companions, one with a telescope. Such visually arresting details are not centered on the figures alone. As in the other works in the series, Fragonard employed the vocabulary of the garden designer — trees, bushes, lawns, flowers, pathways, fountains, and sculptures — to draw the spectator’s attention, frame views, and lead the eye around the composition. With their multiple views, lack of visual unity, and range of brushwork, Fragonard’s gardenscapes present an image of the park that embodies the ever-shifting experience of the promenader in nature. Like his or her counterpart in actual gardens, the viewer of these paintings must “explore” the composition, forever changing direction, making visual connections, and taking delight at a series of seemingly unrelated details. As in the picturesque garden itself, unity and resolution is not imposed upon the scenes by the artist, but is left to the imagination and vicarious eye of the spectator.

 

This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 195–203.

Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.

Richard Rand

January 1, 2009

Provenance

Casimir Perrin, marquis de Cypierre [1783-1844], Paris; (his estate sale, at his residence by Thoré, Paris, 10 March 1845 and day following, no. 52 or 53). possibly marquise de Montesquiou-Fezensac, Paris; Camille Groult [1837-1908], Paris, until at least 1889.[1] (Wildenstein & Co., New York); sold February 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[2] gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1961
Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1961-1962, no. 179, repro.
1987
Fragonard, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987-1988, no. 162.
1988
The Pastoral Landscape: The Legacy of Venice, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988-1989, no. 80, fig. 165.
2003
The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Altes Museum, Berlin, 2003-2004, not in cat. (shown only in Washington).
Bibliography
n.d.
Wentzel, H. "Jean-Honoré Fragonards Schaukel." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 26 (1964): 214-216, repro.
1880
Goncourt, Edmond de, and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siècle. 2 vols. Paris, 1880:2:334.
1889
Portalis, Roger. Honoré Fragonard, sa vie et son oeuvre. 2 vols. Paris, 1889: 272.
1906
Nolhac, Pierre de. J.-H. Fragonard. Paris, 1906: 69-71, no. 150
1956
Einstein, Lewis. "Looking at French Eighteenth Century Pictures in Washington." Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 6th ser., vol. 67, no. 1048-1049 (May-June 1956): 242-244, repro. 241, 242, 243.
1956
Réau, Louis. Fragonard: sa vie et son oeuvre. Brussels, 1956: 158.
1956
Walker, John. "The Nation's Newest Old Masters." The National Geographic Magazine 110, no. 5 (November 1956): 629, color repro. 654.
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): 66, pl. 149.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 367, repro.
1959
Wildenstein, Georges. "L'abbé de Saint-Non artiste et mécène." Gazette des Beaux- Arts ser. 6, no. 54 (November 1959): 244.
1960
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 19, color repro. 21.
1960
Wildenstein, Georges. The Paintings of Fragonard. New York, 1960: no. 447
1961
Walker, John, Guy Emerson, and Charles Seymour. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961:, 187, repro. pl. 179, 180
1962
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 110, color repro.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 318, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 52
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:320, color repro.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 44, repro.
1972
Mandel, Gabriele. L'Opera completa di Fragonard. Milan, 1972: no. 471, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 132, repro.
1977
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 329-331, figs. 296, 298.
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 86, pl. 74.
1980
Fried, Michael. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley, 1980: 139, repro.
1981
Conisbee, Philip. Painting in Eighteenth-Century France. Ithaca, 1981: 178, repro.
1982
Posner, Donald. "The Swinging Women of Watteau and Fragonard." The Art Bulletin 64, no. 1: (March 1982): 80, repro.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 338, no. 457, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 159, repro.
1987
Cuzin, Jean-Pierre. "Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Vie et oeuvre." Fribourg, 1987. English edition New York, 1988: 202-203, 325, no. 339, repro.
1989
Rosenberg, Pierre. Tout l'oeuvre peint de Fragonard. Paris, 1989: 106, no. 312-313, repro.
1993
Massengale, Jean Montague. Jean-Honoré Fragonard. New York, 1993: 40, repro.
2000
Milam, Jennifer. "Playful Constructions and Fragonard's Swinging Scenes." Eighteenth Century Studies 33, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 548, 551, repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 252-253, no. 204, color repro.
2004
Rosenberg, Pierre. "Fragonard, La Fête à Saint-Cloud, Louis-Pierre Marchal de Sainscy, et la Banque de France." In Place de Victoires: histoire, architecture, societé. Ed. Isabelle Dubois et. al. Paris, 2004: 255, 257, repro.
2005
The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 59, fig. 58a, 73, 269 (not in the exhibition).
2006
Milam, Jennifer. Fragonard's Playful Paintings: Visual Games in Rococo Art. Manchester, 2006:61, 67, 131, 139, 141, 146, 159-160, 163, 165 n. 9.
2009
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: no. 41, 195-203, color repro.
Technical Summary

Both Blindman's Buff and The Swing were executed on plain-weave, medium-weight fabric. The support for The Swing consists of two pieces of fabric seamed vertically approximately one-third from the right edge, while that of Blindman’s Buff is fabricated with a horizontal seam that divides the painting in half. The tacking margins have been removed from both paintings. Blindman’s Buff shows fabric cusping along all four edges. Although The Swing has cusping on the top, right, and bottom edges, the cusping on the left side is much less pronounced, indicating that The Swing may have been been cut down on the left side, which would explain the discrepancy in size between the two paintings. Each painting has been lined at least twice and attached to a stretcher whose design differs from the original stretcher. Stretcher bar cracks on both paintings indicate that the original stretchers may have had six members each, including one horizontal and one vertical crossbar. The edges of the original fabric on The Swing are ragged and uneven, so they do not reach the edge of the stretcher. Both paintings were prepared with a double ground of a gray layer on top of a red one. The paint was applied thinly, modulated with glazes and scumbles.

Both paintings are in fair condition. The Swing has three tears in the fabric; the longest tear runs through the lion fountain in the lower left corner. The other two tears are located in the sky in the upper left quadrant of the painting. Blindman’s Buff has a tear through the right arm of the blindfolded woman. The areas of abraded paint in the clouds and trees of Blindman’s Buff have been inpainted, as have the edges and the area along the seam. On The Swing, the seam has been inpainted, and the area between the ragged edges of the original fabric and the edges of the current stretcher have been filled and inpainted. According to Colin Eisler, the paintings were “last relined in Europe” and had “minor restorations by Mario Modestini in 1959.”[1] The inpainting on both paintings has discolored, though the worst of the discolored inpainting along the seam in The Swing was inpainted again in 2002.