The Swing: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Swing: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Swing is an 1876 Impressionist oil on canvas painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The Swing Analysis

A Day at a Parisian Park

The scene is set in an urban park, an area presently occupied by the Musée de Montmartre in central Paris. A low swing has been hung in the midst of a footpath; we do not see whether it is hanging from a bough or artificial support.

A young girl in a white and blue single-piece dress is standing on it, smiling, and looking to our right. The man before her and with his back to us is looking at her, while another man with a child is standing to our left and looking at him.

We imagine the man with his back to us to be close to the young girl, perhaps her father. They have likely chanced upon the swing on their stroll. The man with the child, we imagine, is possibly a family friend.

All around, nature appears to be at its most verdant. The nurtured line of trees arches over so as to create an ideal shade.

The apparent insignificance of the social occasion depicted suggests to us that what Renoir is most seeking to capture is an atmosphere of springtime or summertime serenity among the Parisian middle class in a natural setting of cultivated beauty.

Nature permeates this scene with an assertive ubiquity, not so much by means of the tree line which arches in over the footpath to create a delightful shade, but through those diffusive splotches of light which irrupt mainly from the left, but also from above, and appear to stain every object and compromise every colour.

The use of Colour in Renoir’s The Swing

The man’s blue jacket, most visibly, is tinted at the level of the shoulders by a greenish-yellowish hue. The gravel of the footpath displays areas resembling a mosaic of greys, dark greys, and golds. The young girl’s mostly white dress is darkened by blues at the midriff and enlivened by gold at the hem.

Where do these splashes of alien colour in Renoir’s The Swing come from? They are, in Renoir’s Impressionistic conception, transmissions from contiguous areas induced by natural light through reflection. The navy blue bows running vertically from the girl’s neck to the lower hem are splashing colour on the sides, and so is the bluish shade of the footpath which comes to be situated, from our point of view, behind her hips. The golds, more interestingly, are there because of her golden-blonde hair, the man’s hat, and pools of golden sunlight around the bottom of the swing.

The splotches of light which populate the scene are an excellent example of the Impressionist quick-touch technique. As so very often in the case of the Impressionists’ perception of light, and their naturalistic desire to communicate its effects upon the surface of things, these splotches of light were seen by some critics as a garish effect destructive of the objects’ true colour.

The famous supporter of Impressionism, the novelist Émile Zola, would instead have certainly had something to offer in the way of defence against the critics’ obloquy. It appears that Renoir’s Swing inspired a passage in his 1877 novel, Une page d’amour.

On another colouristic note: the young girl’s white dress also appears pale-pink in reproductions which sharpens up the colours. On a structural note: the composition is carried by strong vertical lines, besides being a canvas which is more tall than wide: the standing people, the tree trunks, and the ropes of the swing.

Relationship to Dance at Le moulin de la Galette

The natural continuation of the vision in The Swing is, of course, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, painted that same season and shown at the same exhibition of 1877.

In it we see the same light stains playing upon the surface of things during a large public gathering, and most spectacularly, again, on the back of a man’s jacket. In fact, it was for Moulin de la Galette that Renoir had made the choice of renting a cottage in the gardens that are now the Musée de Montmartre. The Swing appears to have served as a preparatory study for the Moulin de la Galette.

The Swing, unlike the Moulin de la Galette, was a posed scene. We recognise the girl as Jeanne Samary, Renoir’s regular model and an actress. Born in 1857, she would have been nineteen at the time of painting, though the effusive softness of Renoir’s hues makes her appear as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old.

Her expression communicates mild embarrassment, perhaps at the attention being paid to her. The man on the left is apparently Norbert Goeneutte, a painter, while the man with his back to us is likely Renoir’s brother Edmond.

Renoir’s orientation in this picture is toward the play of light over colour in a natural surround. The theme of a woman on a swing is, therefore, for him, merely functional to an Impressionistic end.

The theme had, however, been established in European painting by the Rococo style, particularly in France. The much-imitated Swing of c. 1767 painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a classic in this case. Like in Renoir’s edition of The Swing, two men are attending to a happily swinging young woman in mostly pink and sumptuous attire.

Location of Renoir’s The Swing

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Swing is located in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France

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