Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes: Style and Meaning
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Published: Thu, 14 Jun 2018
Discuss the content and the possible meanings of Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes
The Fêtes Galantes is derived from a genre of paintings produced in the eighteenth century, depicting aristocratic scenes of mirth and merriment set in the mythical world of Arcadia, where humanity and nature live together in harmony. The reasons behind this deliberate juxtaposition of both the aristocratic everyday and setting it in the mythical world was twofold. First, Antoine Watteau, the chief designer of the genre, wished for his paintings to be recognised by the government appointed Academic Des Beaux Arts, who still ranked scenes of the everyday in a lower class than those depicting biblical, historical or mythological scenes with an educational theme. Secondly, the economics behind painting and commissions were changing. In Watteau’s economic world, instead of commissions coming almost exclusively from either the crown or the church, as it did previously, private patrons were also commissioning works, and provided most of the revenue for artists. But they also, whether by accident or deliberately, provoke a whole series of other responses, notable insofar as they are representative of nothing, and exist purely as decorative pieces of art. Indeed the reaction at the time was to place Watteau in a category of his own, as the ambiguity of his representations tended to eschew easy categorization. David R. Marshall suggests that: “Watteau’s paintings were difficult for contemporaries to classify; today they can be understood in terms of spectators response to the semantic vacuum that they present.” So, the genre of Fêtes Galantes tends to subvert traditional ways of reading, introducing ambiguity on the level, insofar that the image takes precedence over what exactly is represented. In a sense the Fêtes Galantes was designed to be ambiguous. Thus, the Fete Galante, especially Watteau’s work, becomes extremely difficult to read in a straightforward manner; arguably, his work could be laced with irony, his landscapes invoke an almost impressionist freedom, and his concern with the image over the message signalled that his work reveals meanings that perhaps were intentional, or else purely coincidental and decorative.
Fêtes Galantes (1717), is a perfect representation of the style that came to be named after the painting. In the scene, a collection of characters are assembled around a statue of an angel. The background of the image invokes impressionist works, insofar as the trees and the composition of the image seems more in tune with the way light works, rather than the simple telling of a biblical or historical tale, as was the nature of previous work. Indeed, the ambiguity of this work is exactly what makes it compelling. Julie Anne Plax suggests that: “Watteau consistently applied coherent strategies of representation aimed at subverting high art.” Indeed, this particular piece certainly suggests a deliberate eschewing of the concepts of high art – for instance, the statue is a plain, generic statue, depicting an angel. Instead of elevating the divine in the picture, Watteau reduces it to the level of the mundane, as a rather dour looking statue in the corner of the composition. Instead of this divine element, our eye is drawn to the centre of the piece, where some aristocrats talk and lounge in the sun. The resultant effect is a displacement of our expectations, as the scene of the everyday takes precedence over the historical and mythical connotations of the surroundings.
Conversation was an important facet to life for Watteau, and indeed, the congregation of people that appear in Fêtes Galantes certainly encapsulates this theme that remains prevalent in his work. Watteau sought to capture the rhythms of conversation, and indeed, the ambiguity of the piece, and the way it juxtaposes the divine, the everyday, the mythical and the traditional gives the impression that the piece is stuck in a dialogue with itself over what it is supposed to be representing. The conversational theme is prevalent in all of the Fêtes galantes, and it is precisely this, juxtaposition of the high-brow conceptual and representational framework, pasted over the ordinary activities of a few aristocrats that makes the work, in a subtle way, revolutionary. Michalski suggests that: “Almost all Fêtes galantes should be interpreted from the viewpoint of the conversational theme. Watteau […] accepted the high status of conversation within society, and he paid homage to it though his artful construction of discursive situations and though the discreet but self-revealing conduct of his figures”. Indeed, this glorification of conversation instead of the high historical concepts of modern art could be seen in a number of ways – first, as a cynical drive to make money from two differing audiences; first, to satisfy the needs of the Academie and maintain an audience, and second, to actually satirize the concept of high art by smuggling the “mundaneness” of the everyday into a grand, historical painting. Thus, the work can be seen as an ingenious way of making profit from two increasingly disparate groups of people, or else it could be read as a more subversive work of art seeking to destroy the sanctity of representative art from within. This ambiguity and decorousness of the art is precisely what makes the work both fascinating and prescient to an audience that would later treat a work of art as a means to represent the artists unique vision, rather than a selfless depiction of biblical or narrative events. Therefore, the work could be read as anticipating the impressionists and modernist art. Indeed, this is one particular reading of the piece. The decorative aspects of Fêtes Galantes certainly can be read as a prototype for the modernist art obsessed by surface representation and secularism that was to come.
Overall, the genre of the Fêtes Galantes was important insofar as, despite its position as a distinctly commercial genre, artists such as Watteau, arguably satirized the academy by introducing the authority of the artist into these works. Juxtaposing the everyday with the mythical setting of Arcadia, Watteau appealed to both the French Royal establishment, and also the private aristocratic patrons that wished to see themselves in paint, conversing and doing everyday things in the countryside. Thus, the piece itself exists as a decorative piece, unencumbered by the traditional trappings of biblical narrative and / or morally stimulating works from mythology or history. And, by pushing to the forefront the purely decorative, in many ways secularising high art, Watteau brought to the forefront notions about the relationship between the artist and his art, as well as being a forerunner for movements such as Impressionism and Modernism, that would revolutionize the relationship between artist and art, and also mutate the representational powers of painting from an objective depiction, to an obsession with the various forms and the subtleties of seeing objects differently. Overall, Fete Galante is open to a whole series of different meanings and readings, but perhaps it is precisely this sense of ambiguity, this mismatch of certain tenets of classical, traditional high art, and the emergent vocabulary of low art that causes the image itself to be considered over the specificities of what or who it represents.
Cowart, G., Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera and the Subversive Utopia of the Opera-Ballet, from The Art Bulletin, Sept 2001
Marshall, D. R., Watteau and Eighteenth Century Art
Michalski, S., Watteau’s Painted Conversations from The Art Bulletin, Dec 1994
Plax, J. A., Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth Century France, University of Arizona Press, Arizona, 2000
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