The painting depicts a young man hidden in the bushes, watching a woman on a swing, being pushed by an elderly man, almost hidden in the shadows, and unaware of the lover. As the lady goes high on the swing, she lets the young man take a furtive peep under her dress, all while flicking her own shoe off in the direction of a Cupid and turning her back to two angelic cherubim on the side of the older man.
The lady is wearing a bergère hat (shepherdess hat) which is ironic since shepherds are normally associated with virtue because of their living close to nature, uncorrupted by the temptations of the city.
According to the memoirs of the dramatist Charles Collé, a courtier (homme de la cour) asked first Gabriel François Doyen to make this painting of him and his mistress. Not comfortable with this frivolous work, Doyen refused and passed on the commission to Fragonard. The man had requested a portrait of his mistress seated on a swing being pushed by a bishop, but Fragonard painted a layman.
This style of "frivolous" painting soon became the target of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who demanded a more serious art which would show the nobility of man.
The original owner remains unclear. A firm provenance begins only with the tax farmer M.-F. Ménage de Pressigny, who died in 1794, after which it was seized by the revolutionary government. It was possibly later owned by the marquis des Razins de Saint-Marc, and certainly by the duc de Morny. After his death in 1865 it was bought at auction in Paris by Lord Hertford, the main founder of the Wallace Collection.
1782: Les Hazards [sic] Heureux de l'Escarpolettes [sic], etching and engraving by Nicolas de Launay (1739–1792), 62.3 × 45.5 cm (24 ⅝ × 17 ⅞ in). Contrary to the original painting, the lady is facing right and has plumes on her hat (among other dissimilarities) because it was drawn after the replica owned by Edmond de Rothschild.
^Although his identity was not unveiled by Collé, it has been thought that it was Marie-François-David Bollioud de Saint-Julien, baron of Argental (1713–1788), best known as Baron de Saint-Julien, the then Receiver General of the French Clergy. However there is little evidence for this, according to Ingamells, 163-164.
^Terry Byrne (14 June 2008). "Moving tales of love make 'contact'". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 7 May 2011. "'Swinging' tells the story behind a painting by 18th-century artist Jean-Honore Fragonard, in which a girl on a swing (Ariel Shepley) is teasing her companion (Jake Pfarr), while a servant (Sean Ewing) pushes the swing for her."