In 1717, Jean Antoine Watteau, a struggling French artist living in Paris in the 18th century, submitted his painting “The Embarkation for Cythera” to the French Royal Academy under consideration for membership. The image was so well received that instead of the one year membership he had hoped to receive, he was given permanent entry to the Academy. On top of this great honor, the Academy had to create a new genre to describe his style of paintings.

This new style of painting was, and still is today, called a fête galante. This style consists of a mixture of history painting (which was at the top of the hierarchy of art, according to the Academy) and genre painting (which was much lower), and was pioneered Watteau. He spent most of his working life in Paris where he painted these scenes, and quickly gained recognition for his works. Watteau created this style of work in his desire to both achieve recognition by the French Academy but to also be able to include elements of Dutch genre painting which Watteau was well practiced at.

 So, what exactly is a fête galante?

 The fête galante, which in French means "gallant party", primarily is an erotic-seeking image. In the traditional genre painting, anything from fruits or vegetables, shop keepers and shepardesses or various animals could be interpreted as a symbol regarding sexual tension or pleasure. But the fête galante is devoid of these allusions which were so popular in the typical genre scene. Instead, we see couples actively engaged in the pursuit of love. Colin B. Bailey describes the scenes in his book The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting as lovers engaged in both modest and not so modest activities set in whimsical landscapes, parks, and gardens. He also points out that these figures bore witness to the extreme popularity of the masquerades and balls that were so popular in France during Watteau’s time.

Of course, while Watteau’s images were a play on real life, they were in no way an accurate representation of these gatherings that were so popular. These events were held at night and the participants were masked, while in the paintings they are shown to be unmasked and out in the broad daylight, in a place where it seems to be perpetually spring or summer, in an almost ethereal, nonexistent setting. Perhaps adding to the surrealistic quality of a fête galante is the inclusion of classical figures and architecture hidden behind lush vegetation. In Watteau’s “Embarkation for Cythera”, for example, the party embarking upon the unearthly island is accompanied by a plethora of putti figures and is greeted at the top of the hill by a Venus statue.

The fête galante always includes a wonderful mixture of all sorts of people. We have aristocrats, peasants, people in theater garb and others. Watteau had spent some time before his acceptance into the French Academy working for the Italian Commedia dell'Arte (and its French imitators), where he painted the theatrical scenes he saw. You can see in Watteau’s diverse characters this influence remained with him throughout his career. Watteau’s works also include a careful consideration for costuming, which was so meticulous that his images can in fact be used as a reference for 18th century fashions.

Some other painters of the fête galante

Watteau’s popular style soon caught on with other artists. Many tried to imitate Watteau’s fête galante paintings, but nearly all failed to capture the same mood and elegance that Watteau’s had. Nonetheless, this style of painting in the 18th century was quite fashionable and thusly, Watteau’s followers enjoyed a steady stream of clientele.

Nicolas Lancret

Although trained as an engraver, Lancret enjoyed great success as a painter of the fête galante, especially after the death of Watteau. Unlike Watteau, whose patrons were members of the wealthy middle class, Lancret enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy. Louis XV himself often requested works of Lancret’s in this style for decoration of many royal residences, including The Palace at Versailles. His subject matter, of course, was of people in ethereal settings in the pursuit of love, but his colour palette is unlike his predecessors. Although including the pastels typical of the time, Lancret also uses vivid colours, such as brilliant greens, deep reds, and radiant blues.

Jean-Baptiste Pater

Pater studied briefly under Watteau until Watteau’s difficult temperament lead to their parting. Later the two of them reconciled, and Pater worked for several of Watteau’s clients. Pater was of course influenced by Watteau, but he was also influenced by Flemish art. Pater used compositions, costumes, and settings inspired by Watteau, but instead of the delicate romancing of couples and poetic mood which Watteau was so skilled at obtaining, we see a blatant joviality in the couples.

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