“A picture is a poem without words.” —-Horace
The first painting I ever loved besides the ones my father painted was Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing. I discovered Fragonard in my art history class my senior year in college. The class met at 8 a.m. Saturday mornings my final semester of college. I loved the class more than sleeping in after a Friday night fraternity party.
The professor set up slides every week and we sat with pen in hand sketching the paintings or sculptures or cathedrals and furiously taking notes at the same time. Exams for the class consisted of the professor putting up a series of slides we had to identify and write about.
When Fragonard’s The Swing appeared on the screen in the darkened room, I was mesmerized, unable to start my drawing for a full minute. The way the light seemed to emanate from the painting was almost magical. The light seemed to shine from behind the pink fabric of the girl’s dress, and the lush greenness around her, the statues and carvings, all were forever engraved in my mind.
I remember taking my art history textbook home to show my father that summer after graduation. Fragonard’s painting was in the book, and my father sat for hours looking over all the paintings in the book, sharing my love of art.
When my youngest daughter went to college at Boston University, we spent lots of time in Boston art galleries. In Harvard Square there was a great bookstore with an entire upper level filled with art prints. I was sure I would find Fragonard’s The Swing, but I didn’t. I settled for a print of A Young Girl Reading, and I love the way it looks on the wall next to my writing desk.
The story behind the painting The Swing was something I discovered only recently. The painter Gabriel-Francois Doyen was originally approached by the baron de Saint-Julien to paint a picture of his mistress being pushed in a swing by a bishop. The baron was to be in the painting also underneath the swing looking up. Boyen, however, felt the painting was a little scandalous, so he suggested that Fragonard do the painting. Fragonard had a reputation as a little unconventional with a good sense of humor, and so he agreed to do the painting. When I was a college student, all I learned about the painting was the way Fragonard used light. I didn’t learn about the subjects of the painting, or notice the statue of Cupid with his fingers to his lips, the nude couple on the statue base, or the other symbolism in the painting. I just knew I loved the color and the light, the pinks and the greens and the playfulness of the girl as she tossed her slipper to the gentleman on the ground (Massangale 88).
I don’t know why certain paintings become our favorites. I wish I had a print of this painting hanging on a wall in my house somewhere (maybe next to A Young Girl Reading) because I suspect it would remind me of my college days when getting up early on a Saturday morning excited me and when every day that I learned something new thrilled me in ways new knowledge does not as an adult.
I never developed an ability to paint like my father, so instead I work with words, but it’s much harder to show how light illuminates the world around us, how it can seem to shine through objects until it enters in to the very core of our souls. The closest I can come to that is a poem.
References: Massengale, Jean Montague. Fragonard. New York: Harry M. Abrams, Inc., 1993.