- Style and Society:Painting in Eighteenth-Century France
The field of eighteenth-century French painting is in an enviable position: its protagonists are well known, its boundaries mapped, and respected senior scholars have blazed promising paths from biography and attribution toward a culturally embedded history of art. What, then, is left for a new generation? How can style be linked to society without losing a focus on the visual? The four books considered here suggest how some of today’s most promising researchers are tackling the problem by reevaluating familiar figures through specific interpretive lenses. The eighteenth century that emerges, while still Paris-centric, is both a distant historical realm demanding careful reconstruction and a lively critical arena in which twenty-first-century scholars clearly feel at home.
At one end of the spectrum, Holmes’s concise Getty monograph on Lancret uses a single picture as a primer to an underestimated artist and a core motif in early-eighteenth-century art. One of Lancret’s largest pictures, his 1723 Dance Before a Fountain depicts a classic fête galante in which two urban sophisticates dance le moulinet with country counterparts as evening descends in a luxurious park. At first glance it seems the kind of derivative imitation that caused an angry break with Watteau and miscast Lancret as an epigone. Holmes, by contrast, reads him as a nimble opportunist who invested Watteau’s lyricism with the “contemporaneity of the fashion print and the humorous, anecdotal quality of the then-emerging novel form” (23). The Getty’s picture is, admittedly, an early work still close to the master’s example, but Holmes suggests some ways it points to these innovations. As Holmes argued in her 1991 exhibition at the Frick and the Kimbell, Lancret’s novelty was to abandon Watteau’s “delicate ambiguity” in favor of recognizable narratives “steeped in eighteenth-century life” (24): a family at coffee, a drunken post-hunt picnic, or a skating accident, each beautifully illustrated. For Holmes, their believable settings, stylish furnishings, and allegorical props (all features of Netherlandish buitenpartij but uncharacteristic of Watteau) make Lancret a peer of Jean-François de Troy and an antecedent for Hogarth and Greuze. Lancret was thus a catalyst in collapsing history painting into “genre,” just as he is “a bridge in the development of French urban landscapes, between the fantasy parkland of Watteau and the ebullient documentaries of Gabriel de Saint-Aubin” (68). Like a recent exhibition in Valenciennes (reviewed in ECS 38.4 : 691–96), Holmes performs a valuable service in situating Lancret against the shifting colorations of the fête galante. The only risk is to take that as a stable category at a time of flux: new work has emphasized that Watteau entered the academy as a history painter, nothing less, and that “fête galante,” though applied to Lancret’s reception piece, only later became a distinct professional sector. As Holmes notes, in 1723 the Mercure de France assigned the Berlin variant of the Getty picture to “the pastoral genre” despite its patent lack of shepherds. Rather than invent a new category, in other words, Lancret’s public (like Watteau’s) slotted his work into an established but rapidly evolving niche.
Holmes’s is the only book of the four oriented to newcomers, and it helpfully uses ensuing chapters to trace widening circles...