Explore the Fêtes Galantes at Paris’ Musée Jacquemart-André
The term refers to a new style of painting and drawing that blossomed in the early 18th century, at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and lasted throughout the Regency period. Typically, the paintings feature groups of men and women engaging in games or conversation amidst idealised representations of nature.
Located on the top floor of the Jacquemart-André museum, the exhibition explores, over 60 paintings and drawings, the chronological evolution of Fêtes Galantes.
The star of the exhibition is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s La Fête à Saint-Cloud, a large painting on exceptional loan from France’s national bank La Banque de France. It depicts, in great detail, a fair in a Western suburb of Paris. There is a puppet theatre, puppet sellers, women playing, a fallen tree… Each scene could be a painting on its own.
Although La Fête a Saint-Cloud is an extraordinary painting and I was lucky to see it for real, my favourite section of the exhibition was the display of Antoine Watteau’s drawings, particularly his red chalks. Here, his talent and the spontaneity of his strokes are visible to all. Stripped from the corset of oil painting, his characters seem ready to move out of their frames, their clothes coming to life in the vivid rendering of fabrics and pleats.
Inspired by pastoral scenes, Watteau was a pioneer of the Fêtes Galantes genre. A fascinating short video at the very beginning of the exhibition explains how the at-times-lazy Watteau would cover his paintings with a sheet when his work done, just so he could make a copy and reuse groups of characters on other paintings. He used this technique on two depictions of a Pilgrimage to Cythera. Experts are still disputing which one he painted first. Neither painting is on display at the exhibition but the discussion surrounding them, particularly the debate as to whether the characters are arriving at or leaving from the island of love, is another Fêtes Galantes trait. Calling upon themes of love and relationship that resonate with all of us, the genre entices the imagination.
For instance, Jean-Francois de Troy’s The Rendez-Vous at the Fountain or The Alarm depicts a couple in close conversation. Is it an illicit meeting between lovers? Sweet words between newly enamoured young people? Or maybe a conversation between a man and a woman whose families disapprove of their union? A servant, asked to keep guard, interrupts. Quick, one of you hide! Someone is coming and they can’t be seen together.
Another painting that’s easy to extrapolate from is Jean-Baptiste Leprince’s La Precaution Inutile. A woman in her late teens sits on a bench, tied to an older man. He is sleeping. Is he a father, worried his daughter is going to show independent thought? A much older husband forced on her, concerned his wife might not be so enamoured with all his wrinkles? A servant tasked with looking after a girl displaying too much liberty? Whoever he is, his stratagem failed: a young man, partly hidden in the bushes, is taking advantage of his slumber to seduce the charge.
Beyond the beauty and technicality of the paintings, the Fêtes Galantes exhibition is a reminder of what romance was in the 18th century, and of the restrictions and social conventions imposed on individuals.
Sadly, the exhibition doesn’t make the best of its incredible surroundings. Much like the Nissim de Camondo museum, the Jacquemart-André Museum is a private mansion turned national museum, which dates back to the early 20th century. The Jacquemart-André couple collected multiple Fêtes Galantes paintings, which can be seen throughout the residence, without a clear link made to the exhibition taking place upstairs.
Collectors and artists, Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart assembled, over 10 years, 5,000 or so oeuvres d’art ranging from Tiepolo’s massive fresco The Return of Henry III, moved from Italy to overlook the grand staircase, to Uccello’s iconic Saint Georges and the Dragon, which was reproduced in all my English language books.
An island of quietness straight on Boulevard Haussmann, the museum hosts a high-end café, with surroundings matching in grandeur and decoration the collections. There is a Fêtes Galantes-themed menu. My sister and I had the Lancret, a duck with soy and honey sauce, green asparagus and risotto and mushrooms. This was followed by a nutty Russian cake and a cream and raspberry-filled macaroon from the decadent dessert trolley. Despite this, the best part of the café probably is Parisians-watching. They are exactly the kind of Parisians you read about in books and magazines but don’t think exist in real life. This seems to be where they lunch.
Photo credits: (1) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), La Proposition embarrassante Vers 1715 - 1720 Huile sur toile 65 x 84,5 cm Musée de l’Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum / Vladimir Terebenin; (2) Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), Fête galante avec joueur de guitare et sculpture d’enfants jouant avec une chèvre Vers 1717-1719 Huile sur toile 115 x 167 cm Inv. Kat. Nr. 474 B Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jörg P. Anders; (3) François Boucher (1703-1770), Les Charmes de la vie champêtre Huile sur toile 100 x 146 cm Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (4) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pierrot content Vers 1712-1713 Huile sur toile 35 x 31 cm Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; (5) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Fête Galante avec la Camargo dansant avec un partenaire Vers 1727-1728 Huile sur toile, 76,2 x 106,7 cm National Gallery of art, Washington, W. Mellon collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington; (6) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Baigneuses et spectateurs dans un paysage (Les Plaisirs du bain) Avant 1725, huile sur toile, 97 x 145 cm Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des peintures, collection du baron Edmond de Rothschild (1926-1997); dation en paiement de droits de mutation, 1990 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (7) François Boucher (1703-1770), Pastorale Huile sur toile, 64,5 x 81 cm Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; (8) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), La Fête à Saint-Cloud Vers 1775-1780, huile sur toile, 214 x 334 cm Paris, Hôtel de Toulouse, siège de la Banque de France © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot; (9) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Le Jeu de la Main chaude Vers 1775-1780 Huile sur toile, 115,5 x 91,5 cm Washington, D.C., National Gallery of art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington 3