Nicolas Lancret was one of Antoine Watteau's most talented followers and helped to disseminate the taste for fête-galante subjects in the eighteenth century. On the far left musicians are hidden amidst the trees, while across the canvas from left to right, arranged on an exaggerated S curve, stylishly dressed spectators have assembled in intimate groups to watch a couple perform a pas de deux. Lancret, like Watteau, was often inspired by the stage, and the female dancer depicted here is Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo, a ballet star of the Paris Opéra.
La Camargo is dressed in a white gown embroidered with flowers, suggesting a pastoral opera. She is gracefully poised and her partner's gestures subtly mirror her movements. Camargo, who was immensely talented, expanded the repertoire of eighteenth-century ballet with new steps that encouraged active footwork. To facilitate her movements, she shortened her skirts and may have been one of the first dancers to wear ballet slippers.
Lancret's weaving of figure and landscape into an intricate curvilinear design epitomizes the rococo style. The color scheme imbues the composition with a magical quality where the idea of nature and the fantasy of the theater are merged to create an idyllic setting for La Camargo's fashionable audience - who were also Lancret's patrons.
Friedrich II, King of Prussia [1712-1786], Potsdam; by descent in the Hohenzollern family to Kaiser Wilhelm II [1859-1941] Berlin; sold December 1927 through (Hugo Moser, Berlin) to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris); purchased April 1928 by Andrew W. Mellon [1855-1937], Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 1 May 1937 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
- Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1932, no. 170.
- French Painting and Sculpture of the XVII Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1935-1936, no. 11, repro.
- The Rococco Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century, Hight Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1983, no. 43.
- Nicolas Lancret: 1690-1743, The Frick Collection, New York; The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1991-1992, no. 5, pl. 9.
- Friedrich der Grosse: Sammler und Mäzen, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 1992-1993, no. 49, repro.
- The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Altes Museum, Berlin, 2003-2004, not in cat. (shown only in Washington).
- De Watteau à Fragonard. Les fête galantes, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, 2014, no. 40, repro.
- Osborn, Max. Die Kunst des Rokoko. Berlin, 1929: repro. 169, 610.
- Tietze, Hans. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935: 256, repro. (English ed., Masterpieces of European Painting in America. New York, 1939: 256, repro.).
- Jewell, Edward Alden. "Mellon's Gift." Magazine of Art 30, no. 2 (February 1937): 82.
- Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 103, no. 89.
- Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 241, repro. 47.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 102, repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 116, color repro.
- Cooke, Hereward Lester. French Paintings of the 16th-18th Centuries in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number Four in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 28, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 316, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 72.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:304, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 63, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 186, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 330, no. 439, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 220, repro.
- Holmes, Mary Travener. Nicolas Lancret 1690-1743. Exh. cat. Edited by Joseph Focarino. The Frick Collection, New York, 1991: 67-68, no. 5, pl. 9.
- Friedrich der Grosse, Sammler und Mäzen. Exh. cat. Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 1992: 134-135, no. 49.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 167, repro.
- Faxon, Alicia Craig. "Dance/Dancers/Dancing." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. 2 vols. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. Chicago and London, 1998: 1:209.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 254, no. 205, color repro.
- Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 2009: 279-287, no. 64, color repro.
- Vogtherr, Christoph Martin. Französische Gemälde I: Watteau, Pater, Lancret, Lajoüe. Berlin, 2011: no. A 14, 675-677, 784, repro.