Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes

by Christine Cariati

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Plaisirs du Bal, c. 1717
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811, Dulwich Picture Gallery

I recently had the pleasure of spending time with Jean-Antoine Watteau‘s (1684-1721) Les Plaisirs du Bal, which was on view at the Frick Collection while on loan from the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This is the most celebrated of Watteau’s series of poetic paintings which he called fêtes galantes.

John Constable said about Les Plaisirs du Bal that it looked like it was:

“painted in honey: so mellow, so tender, so soft and so delicious.”

In Les Plaisirs de Bal, sumptuously-dressed revelers, many in costume or fancy dress, converse, dance and flirt in a lovely, imagined park. As a contrast to court painting, Watteau’s idyll has a relaxed, informal air—it portrays an earthly paradise. This intensely romantic painting about love, the various stages of courtship and the joys of intimacy, is so potent because Watteau evokes many moods at once—languorous sensuality, the lighthearted gaiety of youth, the pleasures of music and dance—all embellished with a touch of melancholy and irony.

Watteau’s rich patrons liked to see themselves portrayed as benevolent figures in harmony with nature. The opulent setting, which depicts a Renaissance villa with caryatids and a fountain in a lush parkland, borrows much of its landscape ideas from paintings by Rubens and Veronese, and updates the genre to the 18th century. Watteau’s fêtes galantes, inspired by ballet and commedia dell’arte, are at the same time idyllically bucolic and extremely theatrical.

Even though Watteau’s Les Plaisirs du Bal takes place in daylight, it brought  to my mind this dreamy, evocative poem by poet Paul Verlaine, which was written in the 18th-century style, and inspired by Watteau’s fêtes galantes.

Clair de Lune

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques,
Jouant du luth, et dansant, et quasi
Tristes sours leurs déguisements fantastiques.

Toute en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au claire de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

—from Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes Galantes, 1869

(Moonlight

Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and revelers go,
Playing the lute, and dancing, and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their own happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
Which sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.)

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16 Responses to “Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes

  1. It’s true that the music of Verlaine’s words fit very well to the theater depicted by Watteau… I did not know about this connection. There is always a subject which is enlightened here, on Venetian Red !
    Many thanks too, for publishing the original French text.
    From France, kind regards.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Hazlo,
      And you can listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which was inspired by Verlaine’s poem. Interesting to make all the connections.
      Thanks for reading VR.
      Christine

  2. I, too, saw this painting while it was visiting at the Frick, and I agree – it’s almost achingly beautiful. Reproductions really can’t do it justice. The paint shimmers like moonlight, and the colors are so translucent that some of the figures are nearly transparent.
    The Verlaine poem is a lovely match in spirit!

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Great to hear from someone else who came under the painting’s spell. Normally, it is difficult to drag myself from the Bellini St. Francis for too long, but this painting certainly drew me in. I love the Constable quote that it looks like it was: “painted in honey: so mellow, so tender, so soft and so delicious.” There is so much atmosphere, you can see the air.
      The painting is like the opening of an epic novel, with 65 characters, layers of narrative. Even those minor characters, barely visible in the background under the tree, have a dramatic presence. As a writer of historical novels, you must have been riveted, wondering: what happens next?

  3. “Painted in honey”: I love that! Describes it perfectly. Watteau stands by himself among 18th c. painters. There’s always a bittersweet air of melancholy to his fetes galantes. I know it’s risky to try to weave a painter’s life into his work, but I can’t help wondering if Watteau’s fragile health and premonition of early death colored his work. One of those things that’s so hard to explain in words, but seems so apparent when standing before a picture like this.

    And yes, I’m always looking for the “story” in paintings. Can’t help it. My degree’s in art history, but I’m afraid my imagination side-tracked me a bit too much for good scholarship. *g* As you noted, this single small painting has enough in it to inspire a very long novel….

    I enjoy your blog very much. I stumbled over it by accident – the random way of searches and links – and I always find images and ideas to intrigue me. Thank you!

  4. I remember seeing this over ..well, many years ago. It started my life long love affair with Watteau. I also adore his drawings – he had an amazing facility with crayon on paper. I agree with Susan Holloway Scott that his fragile health must have impacted his artistic vision but we really know so little about him – another tragic loss but one which leaves us lots of room for imagination.
    With Watteau, that’s not a bad thing.
    Thanks for another delightful post.

  5. Paul Verlaine has been a great source of inspiration for many artists, including me.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I agree. I’m very glad that seeing the Watteau gave me an excuse to take down my very tattered copy of Verlaine’s poems and reread them…

  6. I enjoyed reading this post. I love the poem and also Debussy and Fauré’s setting of the Verlaine poem. If you wish, have a listen to this performance of Fauré’s setting: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ixdwxvPi2ws Thank you for the inspiration!

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