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The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting



In eighteenth-century France, the term peinture de genre (genre painting) suggested any type of painting that was not history painting. Depicting serious themes drawn from history, literature, or the Bible, history painting had been considered the highest aspiration of the artist since this theory of art was developed during the Renaissance some three hundred years earlier. History painting was officially sanctioned and promoted by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which dominated French artistic life until the Revolution of 1789. It was favored in the training given to young artists, in the election of history painters as the Academy's senior officers, and in the privileged position accorded to their work at the Academy's exclusive exhibitions in the Salon of the royal palace of the Louvre. Thus the official hierarchy of subject matter categorized as "genre" other types of painting--such as landscapes, still lifes, hunting scenes, portraits, or scenes from daily life. However, in modern times (and thus in our exhibition) the definition of genre painting has narrowed and now designates scenes of daily life, be they real or imaginary.

In spite of the official promotion of history painting and various attempts of the Crown and its academic agents to encourage it, other more accessible subjects appealed to most art collectors and the public. Nearly all history painters also produced genre paintings. Most of these works were first acquired by a wealthy elite of French financiers and nobility and, such was the international reputation of French painters, by members of several princely houses abroad (in Berlin, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, and Vienna, for example). In an age before the existence of art museums, the introduction in 1737 of regular public art exhibitions at the Salon in Paris made many of these paintings at least temporarily available to a wider audience, and stimulated the development of a general public interest in contemporary art. Although the exhibited works would soon disappear to grace silken walls, the opportunity to view them, to compare and contrast the production of different artists (though only members of the Academy could exhibit there), soon gave rise to a new type of literature--art criticism--in the press, pamphlets, and polemical brochures. There is no doubt that the market, and the public exhibition, encouraged artists to tackle subjects with popular appeal and to paint them in an alluring way. The level of artistic craftsmanship, which was very high in this period, was calculated to attract not only the discriminating connoisseur-collector, but also the general Salon visitor. Subject matter was designed to engage the spectator by numerous strategies, such as intriguing narrative, humor, tearful drama, moral example, social outrage, sweet sentiment, and titillation. Of course, subject matter changed with the intellectual fashions and the moral climate of the day.

To enter the world of Watteau or Chardin, imaginative effort is required, for they worked in a culture very different from ours. During the eight-year regency that followed the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the center of French society shifted from the royal palace at Versailles to Paris. The refined social life that flourished in the more intimate and private town houses of Paris replaced the pomp and ceremony of Versailles and set the tone for the rest of the century. A sophisticated elite cultivated a life refined to a degree scarcely seen before or since, with intimate social and intellectual gatherings, conversation, letter writing, and a fascination with the movements of the heart.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Mezzetin, c. 1718-1720, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Munsey Fund

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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?

(left) Jean-Antoine Watteau, Venetian Pleasures, c. 1718 - 1719, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

(right) Jean-Antoine Watteau, Mezzetin c. 1718-1720, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Munsey Fund

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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.

Nicolas Lancret, A Lady in a Garden Taking Coffee with Some Children, c. 1742, National Gallery, London

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Fashion and Gallantry

To contemporaries, Jean-François de Troy was best known as one of the greatest history painters of the first half of the century--indeed, he ended his official career as director of the French Academy in Rome. But he had also turned his hand to genre and in the 1720s and 1730s painted a series of brilliant scenes of dalliance and flirtation. One of his masterpieces is The Declaration of Love. It was acquired by the Prussian king Frederick II, a passionate collector of contemporary French painting, and hung in his country palace of Sanssouci, Potsdam, along with works by Watteau and Lancret. The Declaration of Love is derived from Watteau's fêtes galantes, showing as it does a group of seven young aristocrats dressed in the latest fashion, flirting in an elegant park. But the contemporary costumes depicted by De Troy with evident delight in their embroidery and brocade, their shimmer and sheen; the blatant gesture of the main protagonist as he presents a posy to the woman in a silver dress; and the exchanges of glance and gesture give the scene a more literal aspect than the ambiguous and melancholic poetry we encounter in the art of Watteau.

Jean-François de Troy, The Declaration of Love, 1731, Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg

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Sheer delight in the material world--and the world of materials--is found in the genre paintings of François Boucher. In midcareer he made several showing young women absorbed in various daily activities, such as A Lady Fastening Her Garter. These exquisite scenes celebrate the beauty of the women and the lavish materiality of their surroundings. His Presumed Portrait of Madame Boucher--"presumed" because the model here employed is a generic type in Boucher's work and the title was proposed only in the nineteenth century--shows a coquettish young woman, dressed in the height of fashion, reclining on a daybed. After putting aside a book to read a letter, she sits up reflectively amid a rich display of silk brocades, a screen, and Chinese porcelain. Such scenes of opulent, privileged, and leisured life, superbly rendered by Boucher with a jewel-like technique, found a ready market both in France and abroad. But Boucher had trained as a history painter and preferred to work on a more ambitious scale, making cartoons for tapestries or decorations for palaces.

(left) François Boucher, A Lady Fastening Her Garter (La Toilette), 1742, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

(right) François Boucher, Presumed Portrait of Madame Boucher, 1743, The Frick Collection, New York

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The world depicted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin is quite different: his more down-to-earth subjects range from the life of servants and nursemaids to the seemingly innocent pastimes of children. The Return from the Market, showing a maid who has just returned to her pantry with loaves of bread and a leg of lamb, could hardly be more different in social setting from Boucher's painting. But notice the discreet narrative here: who is the male visitor, the corner of his hat just visible in the outer room, and why is our maid so interested in his conversation with the younger girl? This work was exhibited at the Salon of 1738--the second year of regularly staged Salon exhibitions. The inception of these exhibitions caused French painters to become very conscious of how their work was read, and received, by the socially diverse public who came to these increasingly attended events. Painters were liberated from the literary, allegorical, and historical baggage of history painting, and focused on quotidian themes and narratives, often with a moralizing subtext. Chardin painted no less than four versions of this picture, which was also reproduced in a popular engraving. Note, however, that Chardin's painting, albeit with a rugged impasto and earthy colors appropriate to the "below stairs" subject, is no less carefully wrought than one by Boucher. Often, the same noble patrons acquired works by both artists.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Return from the Market, 1738, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Purchased 1956

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In Chardin's The Morning Toilette we are no longer in the servants' area shown in The Return from the Market, but in a parquet-floored apartment. Chardin's style is accordingly much more refined, although the subject is still one of recognizable daily life. It was executed a few years later and proposes a more obvious narrative: as an elegantly attired mother adjusts her daughter's bonnet before they set off for church, the girl glances coquettishly at her reflection in the mirror. But how evident is the meaning here? Is Chardin inviting our own reading, and even a moralizing interpretation? Note the vanity items on the table and the missal on the chair. Chardin was one of the greatest painters of children, and his interest in them and their moral education reflects one of the major concerns of enlightened thinkers in the eighteenth century.

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, The Morning Toilette, c. 1741, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

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Greuze and his Followers

Certainly by midcentury, intellectual trends were affecting the visual arts as much as the practical conditions of exhibiting and the art market were. Jean-Baptiste Greuze was a favorite artist both of the enlightened intelligentsia and of the Salon-visiting public. His works depict the shift from the courtly elegance of a Watteau or a Boucher to the more homespun world of secular moral values promoted by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Marriage Contract shows a prosperous rural family and the betrothal of the eldest daughter to the young man at the center: he has just accepted the dowry from her aged father, and the notary at right has recorded this civil contract. The painting informs us in detail about the family and their reactions. To a modern audience it may appear sentimental, and certainly many sentiments are portrayed, as the participants react in different ways. But contemporaries gave free reign to their emotions as they read such a work. It was admired by enlightened thinkers for its implicit praise of agricultural life, family values, the marriage contract, and population growth. In works such as this, Greuze, much more than Chardin before him, was elevating genre painting by introducing didactic moral concerns previously found only in history painting. Commissioned by the marquis de Marigny, minister of fine arts, the picture was a popular success at the Salon of 1765.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Marriage Contract, 1761, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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Greuze had already made his mark at Salon exhibitions during the 1750s, when he challenged Chardin as a painter of popular genre subjects drawn from lower-class life. His Indolence, showing a lazy servant, is a humorous--but no less moralizing--commentary on the virtuous servants and kitchen maids depicted by his rival Chardin. Indeed, from the mid-1750s to the late 1770s, Greuze's skill as a narrative painter, the strong emotions he stimulated in his audience, and the moral values his art often expressed made him the dominant figure in genre painting. Among his many followers was Étienne Aubry, whose Paternal Love is a model example of what the critic Denis Diderot admired as "moral genre" when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1775. In a simple bourgeois rural household--so different from the courtly and aristocratic world of De Troy or Boucher--Aubry depicted a scene of domestic bliss. A prosperously but unostentatiously dressed man has returned from his travels and lovingly assumes his paternal duties to his three young children, alongside his adoring wife and doting father. The painting expresses heartfelt emotion and, in line with the latest Enlightenment ideas, extols family life and the engagement of both parents in the rearing of their children.

(left) Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Indolence, 1756-1757, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund

(right) Etienne Aubry, Paternal Love, c. 1775, The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham

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Jean-Honoré Fragonard sometimes depicted such moralizing scenes, but he is best remembered for images of eroticism and flirtation. The Stolen Kiss is in some ways a return to the world of Watteau and De Troy in its theme of amorous pursuit, here quite explicit as the young man takes the girl by surprise to steal a kiss. By the 1780s Fragonard's painting style was much less free than that of his master Boucher, for example, or his own earlier work. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Parisian collectors were avidly acquiring seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre paintings, with their precise brushwork and attention to refinements of surface. Fragonard was in part responding to this taste for high finish.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Stolen Kiss, c. 1786-1788, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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The same response is seen in Louis-Léopold Boilly's art, which takes us into the first decade of the nineteenth century. The small Cardsharp on the Boulevard was painted almost with the finesse of a miniature, as he detailed with meticulous care the various activities on a Paris boulevard, from a cardsharp with his credulous victims to a young woman soliciting an older man. Some veiled moral lessons may lurk here, but we feel that Boilly, like a modern urban stroller, took a detached pleasure in observing these scenes of the perennial human comedy. Boilly was working a century after Watteau, and his scene is undoubtedly more true to life than Watteau's enigmatic fêtes galantes. Yet both artists were acute and sensitive observers of the world around them. Both also worked within an art form--genre painting--whose developments and transformations function, at one level, as a constantly changing mirror of Parisian life and culture.

Louis-Léopold Boilly, The Cardsharp on the Boulevard, 1806, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Roger and Vicki Sant

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