Watteau and the Fête Galante
The intimate scale and exquisite technique of Jean-Antoine Watteau's Venetian Pleasures reflect this world. Based loosely on a contemporary opera-ballet of the same name, the picture is a fête galante, a poetic subject Watteau made his own: well-dressed members of the upper class pursue love, music, and conversation in an imaginary park. Here, many of the participants are wearing masquerade or other fancy costumes. The dancing man in oriental costume was a friend of the artist, while his pretty partner was a model Watteau often employed; the bagpipe player to the right is likely a self-portrait. A good deal of flirtation is going on among the seated figures, over whom an alluring sculpture of Venus presides. This lighthearted, yet quite credible fantasy may once have been full of personal references. Today this enigmatic picture also conveys a sense of irony and a hint of melancholy.
Watteau's ironic mode takes an almost comic turn in his Mezzetin, a character derived from the commedia dell'arte (an old Italian theatre tradition still alive in Watteau's Paris). Here, the clown acts the forlorn lover as he serenades the woman who faces away from him in the bosky background. Or is "she" a statue, with a literal heart of stone?
Watteau's elegant fêtes galantes, finely painted and often exploring the vagaries of love, set the tone for much eighteenth-century French painting. And for whom is love not an important subject? He had several followers in the early decades of the century, the greatest of whom was Nicolas Lancret. A Lady in a Garden Taking Coffee with Some Children adapts the typical parkland setting of Watteau's fêtes galantes to the theme of familial love. Carefully aproned in case of a spill, a little girl is offered her first taste of coffee by her solicitous young mother. Against the little one's trepidation about this adult drink, her older sister's patience shows the confidence of her years. This picture is almost certainly not a portrait group, but an imaginary genre scene depicting ideal family life in a perfect setting.