15 septembre 2021 | Galerie Atena
You must have seen them, on porcelain, canvas or even tapestry, these gallant couples courting each other in the countryside. But who are they? Why are they sitting on the ground in such elegant clothes? Tired from the formality of the Baroque art of the previous period, we enter an era turned towards lightness. The court leaves Versailles for Paris, a place where freedom and enjoyement favored love. Let's go back to this French 18th century which sees "la vie en rose".
In the 17th century, genre painting, a Venetian and Flemish tradition, was considered minor. They were anecdotal scenes of everyday life that did not please the Academy. Love scenes had no place among the intellectual elite of the aristocracy. It is not until 1717 with the piece of reception the Pilgrimage to the island of Cytherea of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) that things change. The Academy, faced with his talent, refused to relegate him to a minor genre and decided to create the genre of the fête galante.
They reprensent a moment of social idleness of the aristocracy in a country setting. To this is added the notion of seduction. Antoine Watteau does not only represent daily life but also a lightness that pleases both private individuals, from whom the majority of the financing comes, and the Academy of Fine Arts appointed by the government.
But what distinguishes the fête galante from another scene of aristocratic life? The theme of passionate love in bucolic settings is a pretext to be bold and original in the composition of the artwork. The artists plays on the modernity of the clothes while integrating them into a timeless place. Watteau's works illustrates clothes that are contemporary to him. Art historians will refer, as "Watteau pleats" the back of robe à la française of the period following his precise descriptions.
On the pair of opaline vases in our collection attributed to Jean François Robert, one can clearly see the precise description of the aristocratic wardrobe. On one of them, a man is wearing the French habit. This one is composed of a pair of breeches, a vest and a red justaucorps with golden decorations. His hair is tied up in a ponytail in a small black velvet pocket called "crapaud". His companions wear robes à la polonaise rolled up over skirts of contrasting colors. These clothes show the high social status of the protagonists. This allows the aristocrats to recognize themselves in these idle and delicate scenes.
There is also a strong emphasis on theatricality and double langage. Gallantry is adorned with sophisticated codes specific to the aristocracy. They made it possible to determine who belonged to good society and who was excluded, while the bourgeoisie began to have the means to blend in with the nobility. Being a gallant man meant knowing how to please in society by one's appearance, manners and wit. Everything is a pretext for gallantry, from the movement of a fan to the position of a mouche on a young woman's face. The codes are inscribed on everyday objects, from fans to the busks (a wooden blade inserted into the front of bodices to maintain their rigidity) of the whalebone bodies. This led to a very diverse education among aristocratic youth, but it remained superficial. This inspired the dandyism of the 19th century.
These fete galantes are not held indoors. It would be unappropriate to be too forward in a drawing or at a ball. It is during walks outdoors, away from the obligations of etiquette, that love can be most adventurous.
Pastoral ou love in the open air
If one tries to get get closer to nature it is to show that one is a scholar and have read the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). According to him, Man is good by nature and it is society that compromises him. Thus, those in society who are closest to nature are considered respectable. This leads to a sentimentalist view of the peasantry, which is considered pure. Illustrating shepherds is an opportunity to express the fate of feelings on people who are considered 'simple' and 'innocent'. Indeed, the aristocracy, too far removed from nature, would be blamed for vanity and lust rather than subjected to fate.
This idea is not new; the pastoral genre was popularised in literature as early as the 3rd century BC by Virgil in Les bucoliques, but really took off during the Italian Renaissance. In France, it was Honoré D'Urfé (1607-1628) who brought the pastoral to light with L'Astrée in 1607. The novel describes the adventures of young people whose noble ancestors chose to get away from the wars to live in small villages on the banks of the Lignon.
The theme of the Pastoral in the visual arts arrived with the decoration of the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris by François Boucher in 1737-1738. He conceived scenes of carefree and playful youth in an idealised image of peasant life. The shepherds and shepherdesses, dressed like lords and whose bare feet are never soiled, look after flocks requiring little care. They seem totally unaffected by the harsh conditions of rural life.
"Les moutons à l'abreuvoir" by Jules MOIGNIEZ (1835-1894)
By surrounding themselves with works representing this ideal society, educated but close to nature, the aristocracy appropriates its virtues. Transposing a gallant scene into a bucolic landscape is a way of ensuring that the feelings expressed are well founded.
This glorification of country life reached its peak with the Queen's hamlet of Marie-Antoinette. She asked Richard Mique to create a rural village with thatched cottages and a farm on the outskirts of the Trianon. There are a barn, a dairy, a stable, a piggery and a henhouse. Legend has it that she "played the shepherdess", which is not exactly true, as she used this place mainly as a place for strolls. Nevertheless, these buildings show the great attraction that the rural world and its activities had for aristocratic society.
After the death of Louis XIV, France aspired to a more relaxed attitude. Governed by a very strict etiquette and involved in numerous wars, the nobility took more freedom during the Regency (1715-1723) and morals became more relaxed. It was under the patronage of Mme de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, that the essence of Rococo art was defined. The colour palette became lighter, with shades of pink, blue and blond reflecting the joie de vivre of the court. Pink in particular, the colour of the flower of the goddess Venus, became more important as the marquise wore it in Versailles. Rococo became a lifestyle based on the refined pleasure of the senses and aesthetic satisfaction.
Because of that, it spread to all media. The Sèvres factory (a royal factory from 1759) used the etchings and subjects of François Boucher, a protégé of Madame de Pompadour, for its porcelain creations. The whiteness of the young women's complexion enhances the whiteness of the material. Between 1778 and 1797, a large number of pastoral themes are found in biscuit, small unglazed statuettes, which are used as table decorations. This was an opportunity to stimulate the imagination of the spectators and to lead to conversations between the guests. An opportunity to juge the host's decor but also his ability to see beyond the innocent scenes.
Blue porcelain cup in Sèvres style
For make no mistake about it, seduction is not only reserved for innocent affairs. The second half of the 18th century saw the arrival of the notion of libertinism. The term already existed in the 17th century, but it represented above all a freedom of thought and a certain inconstancy of love. From the reign of Louis XV, a bon vivant king and lover of pleasures, it became synonymous with the search for physical pleasures. This led to a double language between apparently chaste scenes and crude sexual connotations.
The flute-playing shepherds can show the ease of falling in love in a musical atmosphere surrounded by harmonious nature, as well as representing a sexual act for 18th century society. The glances sometimes gives way to explicit gestures or dishevelled clothing, as is the case on the biscuit of a hunting scene with a gallant couple in our collection.
This importance of seduction in the lifestyle of the court of Louis XV was accentuated by the work of the mercer merchants who influenced the decorative arts. These "sellers of everything, makers of nothing" embellished objects created by manufacturers or craftsmen with additional decorations to adapt them to new trends. It might be the case with this large porcelain and gilt bronze bowl depicting a couple embracing. In order to accentuate the sensual allusion of this bowl, a rich gilded bronze frame with three satyrs was added. The satyr is an erotic figure of the 18th century. Often used to represent the theme of the voyeur, the satyr reminds us that, as a viewer, we enjoy the intimacy of the couple for our own aesthetic desire.
This depravation of the aristocracy did not please everyone, and from 1750 onwards, we begin to see a movement in opposition to the rococo style: Neoclassicism. Pastoral scenes continued to exist, but they took a more virtuous turn. Gone are the embracing lovers, the representations focus on the noble values of working the land. All that remains of the fete galante is the decor of an idealised rural Arcadia, an image of ancient Rome. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), a virtuoso of bucolic love, was a victim of this change in taste. His series of paintings for the Château de Louveciennes of Madame du Barry, another of Louis XV's mistresses, depicting the stages of love, was returned to him. Instead, the patron hung paintings by Joseph Marie Vien (1716-1809), which were much more neoclassical.
Clock "Shepperd of Arcadia" by Aizelin and Barbedienne
In the 1780s, there was a total rejection of the Rocaille style, which was considered too frivolous and decadent. Moralistic history painting took over from genre scenes. The colour palette used became darker and the colour pink was abandoned in favour of red, which was considered more serious. After the archaeological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a return to the sources of art was sought.