Versailles—where too much is not enough. At first I was dazzled but it didn’t take long for the Rococo style to wear me out. All that theatrical exuberance, all those asymmetrical curves, all those volutes and festoons made me dizzy. However, I must admit that my vanity can be very Rococo. I, too, wanted to have my portrait painted while flying high like the woman in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. You know, fluffy and extravagant and excessive.
The painting portrays a young woman flying high in a swing pushed by an elderly man. She kicks off one of her shoes so that, with her leg raised, a young man hiding in the bushes can see under her dress. Rumor was that it had been commissioned by Baron de Saint-Julien and that the woman in the painting was his mistress. On the left is a statue of cupid looking on with his finger to his lips indicating that there’s a secret to be kept. Such a naughty painting, decadent with frills, is a real bijou!
Rococo, Italian Baroque translated into French, robbed its name from “rocaille”, a kind of decoration where pebbles and seashells were cemented together to create an ornamentation that refused to stay still.
Louis XV loved Rococo but his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, thought it to be too de mode preferring, instead, the trendy Neoclassical. And since artists tend to be trendy, Fragonard toned it down, too. Nine years later we have him painting a young woman sitting not on a swing but in a chair reading a book. It’s difficult to believe that the paintings are by the same artist. Now bon ton obliterates risqué.
There’d been much speculation as to who A Young Girl Reading was. And, with some disappointment, we learned that there was nothing scandalous about her. In fact, she didn’t even exist and was just one of Fragonard’s many figures de fantaisie existing only in the artist’s imagination.
In this painting, the magic of reading is embraced. An author provides the words whereas the reader’s imagination provides the images. And as one’s imagination is the product of their own experiences and interactions with the world around them, every reader visualizes the author’s words in their own way. This means that the more there are people reading the book, the more images the book creates permitting just one book to create zillions of images. Now that’s très jolie magic!
My only question now: just what was the young girl reading?
(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)
Bibliography: The Creation of the Rococo by Fiske Kimball on archive.org HERE