arts and design

‘True genius’ of Fragonard revealed after restoration of The Swing


A complex and delicate conservation process on one of the most celebrated paintings in French art history has revealed fresh vibrancy and detail that shows the artist’s “true genius”.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing, created in 1767, was considered by many contemporaries as highly risqué for its depiction of a young woman revealing a glimpse of her undergarments from her perch in a verdant garden.

The painting – described as “the most iconic painting of the entire rococo movement” – will go back on display at the Wallace Collection next week after the removal of a thick, yellowed, 100-year-old varnish and earlier discoloured retouches.

The results of the conservation work were astonishing, said Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection. “Fragonard’s true genius has been revealed.”

The work has restored depth and revealed layers of foliage. The girl now leaps out from the painting, the lace adorning her silk dress is crisper, and her facial expression is clearer. There is more detail to a small dog in the lower right corner.

These images show the progress of the conservation work.
These images show the progress of the conservation work on the painting. Photograph: Cassandra Parsons/The Wallace Collection

Technical analysis has shown that the artist undertook little preparatory work before he embarked on the work. Most artists made initial drawings or studies but Fragonard appears to have worked confidently directly on the canvas, the Wallace Collection said.

“The removal of the varnish has brought it back to life. It is really transformed. Fragonard’s technical mastery is once again on display with very bold colour contrasts reawakened, and little details that have always been there are now apparent again,” said Yuriko Jackall, curator of French paintings at the Wallace Collection.

Although The Swing is one of the most famous works in art history, there is little detail about its origins. The patron who commissioned it is thought to be a “gentleman of the court” who wanted a painting showing a “pretty child’s legs”. Some artists declined to take on the brief, regarding it as indecorous.

In Fragonard’s painting, a young man lounging beneath the swing has a direct view into the girl’s billowing dress as one of her shoes flies into the air. Behind her, an older man propels the swing with a pair of ropes as stone cherubs gaze on.

Jackall acknowledged that through the lens of the 21st century the painting could be problematic for some. “We need to think carefully about how to discuss it. But I think, with the treatment, [the young woman] is a much more active and dynamic figure than I understood previously, she’s sort of zooming out of the canvas.

“She’s the centre of attention, and I think that that gives her a certain power. But it’s a picture that contains a certain level of ambiguity, it opens itself up to a lot of interpretations.”

The conservation work was undertaken by Martin Wyld, former head of conservation at the National Gallery, where he spent more than 40 years restoring works by artists including Leonardo and Diego Velázquez.



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