- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2005) 691-696
[Access article in PDF]
Watteau and the Fête Galante
No undergraduate leaves Art History 101 without learning that Watteau pioneered the "fête galante," a new type of picture that broke academic hierarchies by conjuring poignant, arcadian visions of love in settings halfway between the real and the theatrical. Some version of that paradigm underlies most scholarly attempts to decode and contextualize these enigmatic images. Yet until last spring no recent exhibition or monograph had dealt head-on with this critical category, so central to our understanding of Watteau and of early eighteenth-century French visual culture in general. Easy to recognize, the genre is harder to define, much less interpret; as Marianne Roland Michel noted in 1985, "the very notion of the fête galante clearly troubles us, perhaps because we have neither literary nor social points of reference" ("Watteau: After the Exhibitions," The Burlington Magazine 127, p. 917).
That gap was partly filled by an ambitious exhibition in Valenciennes, the artist's birthplace in Flemish territory annexed by Louis XIV. Originally planned for 2005, the show was advanced to join the Rubens retrospective in nearby Lille, Europe's Capital of Culture for 2004. In the process its focus broadened from studying the fête galante within Watteau's oeuvre to asking how Watteau and his followers fused existing elements into a new visual mode that was neither history nor allegory nor traditional "genre." To do so, American Watteau scholar Martin Eidelberg and French curator Patrick Ramade assembled eighty-four paintings, drawings, and prints from the fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth century to illustrate the birth, apogee, and fortunes of a genre that Watteau perfected but did not invent or exhaust. The result will take its place in the Watteau literature, but it [End Page 691] will also shed new light on the visual tradition or traditions within which the artist must have understood himself to be working.
Just what constitutes a fête galante, and what are its pictorial roots? Using iconography as their key, Eidelberg and Ramade structured the exhibition and accompanying catalogue around eight themes: the realm of Venus, village fairs, weddings, the seasons, promenades, music, refreshments, and games. Each cluster juxtaposed work by Watteau with items highlighting his debts, innovations, and legacy. First, however, they introduced Watteau's working method through a dozen paintings and small-scale drawings that showed how he built up his imaginary fêtes from carefully studied elements: heads, hands, casual figure studies, grape leaves. This grouping also suggested the continuity of mark-making between the artist's red-chalk sketches and his finished oils, inducing visitors to slow down and enjoy his splendid touch where it has survived.
The first thematic cluster, "The Realm of Venus," set Watteau's 1717 Pilgrimage toCythera (fig. 1)—the archetypal fête galante and perhaps the first to carry this sobriquet—into the long genealogy of the mythical garden of love. Problems with loans kept this room from being the show-stopper it might have been, and visitors hoping to see Watteau's magisterial Paris or Berlin canvases had to be content with Nicolas Tardieu's 1733 engraving of the latter for the Recueil Julienne. That substitution nonetheless suggested the importance of high-quality reproductive prints in disseminating Watteau's ideas, and Tardieu's black-and-white transcription did not obscure the organizers' point that the essentials of Watteau's imagery (sylvan setting, amorous revelers, a presiding image of Venus) had diverse antecedents. Stylistically, Jan van Eyck's Garden of Love for Duke Philip the Good (evoked in a sixteenth-century copy) struck a jarring note but underscored the genre's courtly, late-medieval...