Category Archives: 18th Century



In a recent exhibition* and catalogue, La Fête à Saint-Cloud by Jean-Honoré Fragonard was adduced as a late example of the fête galante genre.

Antoine Watteau formulated the fête galante in the 1710s. The genre consists of figures in contemporary dress and/or commedia dell’arte characters performing the tropes of pastoral poetry while diverting themselves in lushly-landscaped parks. Like the mythic Arcadia, the fête galante’s overall mood of ease and pleasurable sociability is shadowed by a vague melancholy or longing–a sense that the depicted Golden Age must pass, or has already passed.

To be sure, Fragonard’s picture fulfills enough of the genre requirements to be classified as a fête galante, but one with amplifications and qualifications. Whereas Watteau and his followers usually worked in small- to medium-sized formats, La Fête à Saint-Cloud is the expansive centerpiece (2.16m x 3.35m) of an interior decoration scheme for the salon of a Parisian hôtel particulier.

Fragonard’s content also deviates from the generic norm. Not only are contemporary fashions and entertainments depicted in La Fête à Saint Cloud, the fête itself is a representation of an historical event, an annual fair held in September in the park of Saint Cloud. The various spectacles and diversions, including theatrical performances, marionette shows, games, concessions, and the water features for which the park was famous, are all depicted with great accuracy. (Fragonard’s earlier Fête à Rambouillet also overlays a depiction of an historical fair with fête galante imagery.)

Not only does the historicity of the painting’s subject matter run counter to Watteau’s deliberate balancing of equally indeterminate mythic, pastoral and modern elements, Fragonard suggests that the fête galante has been literalized in actual events such as the Saint Cloud fair. Whereas Watteau’s galants embark on a journey to an imaginary destination, in Fragonard’s picture, they have already arrived at a fully-colonized reality. At that moment, when the reification obtains, the fête galante genre ceases to exist, its social function having been absorbed completely into the general culture. La Fête à Saint Cloud is, therefore, not a fête galante genre picture, but documentation of a cultural production derived from the genre.

Since the late 18th century, La Fête à Saint Cloud has hung in the Hôtel de Toulouse, the Paris residence of Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, duc de Penthièvre.** The mansion was confiscated by the revolutionary government upon the duke’s death in 1793 and, in 1811, Napoleon authorized its sale to the Banque de France. The bank makes the painting, still in its original setting, available to over 10,000 visitors per year.

De Watteau à Fragonard: Les Fêtes Galantes, Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, 14 March – 21 July 2014.

** No documentation concerning either a direct commission from the artist or a purchase from a third party survives, but that is consistent with the artist’s casual approach to business. Of the 550 known paintings by Fragonard, only 5 are documented–an unusually low figure for a prominent artist of the period.



Antoine Coypel (1661-1722) was the son of the painter, Noël Coypel, and the father of a painter, Charles-Antoine Coypel. Trianed by his father, with whom he spent four years in Rome studying art, Antoine was elected to the Académie Royale at the age of 18.

Like his hero, Peter Paul Rubens, Coypel was the artist-courtier par excellence. He was appointed director of the academy in 1714, was named Premier Peintre du Roi in 1716 and elevated to the minor nobility in 1717. He received high-profile commissions from the king (the ceiling painting of for the chapel at Versailles); his brother, the Grand Dauphin (the Cupid and Psyche series of 1700); and the Duc d’Orléans ( the Aeneid mural cycle for the at the Palais Royal). While director of the academy, Coypel edited and published the Discours prononcés dans les conferences de 1’Academie royale de Peinture, a collection of lectures on single pictures in the royal collection presented by academy artists to their colleagues.

Carefully educated in both art and the classics, Coypel was an exemplary history painter, as erudite as he was technically skilled. His real talent, however, was for drawing. With Rubens and Annibale Carracci as his models, Coypel combined Flemish freshness and immediacy with Roman monumentality to create presentation drawings the are intimate and grand at the same time. His blue-ground and trois-crayons chalk drawings were highly-prized by collectors in his lifetime.

In recognition of his virtuosity, Coypel served as the first keeper of the royal drawing collection from 1711-19. An passionate collector himself, Coypel owned over 100 drawings by the Carracci in addition to works by many other Renissance and 17th-century draughtsmen. He bequeathed his collection to his son, Charles-Antoine, who, after an equally successful academic career, willed the drawings to the monarchy in 1752, 280 of which entered the Louvre collections after the revolution.


The Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 –1758), the older sister of Frederick the Great, was a musician, the lute being her principle instrument, and a composer of opera and chamber music. Through marriage, she became the Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth in 1731. Her ambition to make Bayreuth a major musical center necessitated the building of a modern performance space, adequate to the staging of operas. In 1744, she commissioned architect Joseph de Saint-Pierre to build an opera house, to be situated on the main square in Bayreuth, and the Bolognese theatre architect Giuseppe Galli Bibiena and his son Carlo, to design its interior, including the stage, seating, lighting and acoustics. The opera house was completed in just four years and opened in 1748. In a letter to Frederick the Great of 14 May 1748 announcing the completion of the opera house, Wilhelmine shows herself to be a discriminating and informed patron:

Dieser Tage habe ich das neue Opernhaus besichtigt. Ich war sehr erfreut darüber. Das Innere ist fast vollendet. Bibiena hat in diesem Theater die Quintessenz des italienischen und französischen Stils vereinigt. Man muss zugeben, dass er in seinem Fach ein unübertroffener Meister ist.

Wilhelmine subsequently participated in the theatre’s programs as writer, player, composer, actor and director.

As theatricality is a hallmark of both the Baroque style and absolute monarchies, it seems only natural that after palaces and churches, the building of ornately-decorated theatres was a major form of absolutist architectural self-expression. Not only did the magnificence of the structure and its decoration reflect positively on the wealth, taste, and glory of the ruler, festivals, court masques, operas, dances and allegorical plays were performed there on important occasions to praise the ruler or to commemorate births, military victories, anniversaries, birthdays and coronations. Wilhelmine, the sister of and absolute monarch and wife of an absolutist prince had the Bayreuth opera house built party to assert similar ideological claims and party to fulfill her own artistic inclinations.


Jean-Siméon Chardin (French, 169 9-1779) was accepted into the Académie Royale in 1727 as a painter of “animaux et fruits,” on the strength of his two large still lives, La Raie and Le Buffet, and in the early part of his career, still-life painting predominates.

Challenged by his friend the portraitist Jacques-André Joseph Aved, in 1733, he began painting and exhibiting genre scenes exclusively. Exhibited for the first time at the Salon of 1737, the figural pictures were an instant success. The demand for his genre scenes required him to paint multiple copies, sometimes years after the original, and they were reproduced in print form, often accompanied by moralizing verses written by the engravers.

Children are ubiquitous in Chardin’s scenes of bourgeois life (and almost entirely absent in his pictures of servants). They are always depicted either in the act of learning, mastering a skill, or receiving instruction. The educating and aculturating of these children is performed exclusively by women.

To a great extent, Chardin paints figural scenes as if the were still-lives—his figures tend to be at rest, in between tasks, pausing to reflect, or observing intently and they rarely speak. These static and silent compositions paradoxically lend themselves to the understated depiction of emotional relationships. Chardin’s figures register complex states of mind and emotions like patience, encouragement, approval, warmth, and concern through subtle adjustments of posture, inclination of the head, gaze, hand gestures, and proximity, whereas his contemporaries Fragonard and Greuze rely heavily on dramatic action and theatricality to convey much simpler emotions like anger, fear, joy.

Chardin’s paintings were avidly collected by educated aristocrats and high-ranking officers of the royal administration. These cultured viewers admired and understood the subtlety and understatement of the genre scenes. The engravers, fearing Chardin’s reticence was beyond the comprehension of their bourgeois clients, frequently made adjustments to them when transferring the image to the plate, using the burin to sharpen or darken facial features of Chardin’s figures, thereby transforming a complex emotion like disappointment into a simple one like displeasure. To the altered images were appended moralizing and didactic verses, the coarseness of which Chardin cannot possibly have endorsed.

The change in mode of 1733 is more a bridge from one stage of the artist’s career to another than it is a rupture. The pictorial concerns Chardin mastered as a painter of (very) still life were continued and extended into his genre painting. A fellow academician included this anecdote in a publicly-delivered eulogy for Chardin:

… Un jour, un artiste fait grand étalage des moyens qu’il employait pour purifier et perfectionner ses couleurs. M. Chardin, impatient de ce bavardage de la part d’un homme à qui il ne reconnoissoit d’autre talent que celui d’une exécution froide et soignée, lui dit : “Mais qui vous a dit qu’on peignît avec les couleurs ? — Avec quoy donc ? répliqua l’autre, fort étonné. — On se sert des couleurs, reprit M. Chardin, mais on peint avec le sentiment.”

It is entirely plausible to think of Chardin as a painter of sentiments, if ones doesn’t expect sentiments to be loud and obvious.

In 1756, Chardin resumed still life painting and, apart from several portraits and self-portraits made in pastel made at the end of his career, he never painted the human figure again.

HANDS DOWN: Nicolas de Largillière

NICOLAS DE LARGILLIÈRE (French, 1656-1746)

Hand gestures function as kind of a shorthand in 18th-century French portraiture. They are summary indicators of the subject’s station, qualities and character, which are set forth in full in the expository longhand of costume, facial features and setting.

These details taken from portraits by Nicolas de Largillière (French, 1656-1746).

SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND IV: The Treppenhaus of the Würzburg Residenz

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In his first year as Court architect and engineer, Johann Balthasar Neumann was charged with designing and building a new Residenz, in Würzburg, from the ground up, for the Prince-Bishops of Schönbrunn. As Neumann was often called away to other projects, his plans were carried out mostly by architects favored by the Prince-Bishop’s uncle and brother, including Lucas von Hildebrandt, Maximilian von Welsch and Germain Boffrand. The stone and masonry exterior was completed in 1744; the interior of the 300-room palace was finished in 1770. After Neumann’s death in 1753, Hildebrandt, Welsch and Boffrand each took full credit for the Residenz’s design in its entirety.

Neumann oversaw the building and decoration of the most important spaces in the Residenz, the suite of formal and ceremonial rooms and antechambers through which visitors passed on their way from the carriage entrance on the ground level to the Kaisersaal on the upper, where the Prince-Bishop would receive them. The centerpiece of this progression is the Treppenhaus, built in 1737. The grand, indoor staircase is the cold-climate equivalent of the double-ramp stairways seen on the exteriors of Italian villas.

Neumann had to get guests up one floor in a manner befitting their rank, without taxing them physically, and while preparing them, step-by-step, as it were, for the magnificence of the Prince-Bishop. Neumann devised a scheme whereby the two stages of the stair, which reverses direction at midpoint, forms a cantilever, allowing the huge mass of stone to be carried on think columns, giving the impression it floats on the air. In Rococo Bavaria, one did not climb or mount the stair, one ascended, drifting upwards towards the vast pastel empyrean above.

The entire span of the Treppenhaus (18m x 30m) is covered by a vast vault composed of rubble and concrete that has no supports other the the walls it rides on. Neumann’s critics warned of collapse; the vault is not only still intact today
, it survived direct hits during the Allied bombing of Würzburg on 16 May 1945, which largely destroyed the old city and much of the Residenz. Neumann made use the vault’s weight, the downward thrust of which clamps the cantilever in place at both ends. By engaging the staircase to the wall the staircase acts as a strainer arch would, countering the tendency of the walls to buckle under the load of the vault. It is a mutually-reinforcing structural solution of great elegance.

A second Treppenhaus of equal dimensions was planned for the other side of the Kaisersaal, but was never begun.

The Treppenhaus vault was frescoed by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1752-53. Measuring 670m², it is the largest painting in the world painted by the highest-paid artist of the 18th century ( Tiepolo was paid 15,000 gulden, for his work at the Residenz, over 13 times the annual salary Neumann drew from his court  appointment). The fresco represents an allegory of the the world, represented by the four continents no less, paying  tribute to the Brince-Bishop. The fresco includes a portrait of Neumann, dressed in his Officer’s uniform, seated on a canon. A trompe l’oeil dog sniffs at his outstretched hand. Canon and dog must have been inside jokes between the painter and architect. Balthasar Neumann died in Würzburg just as Tiepolo was finishing the fresco, in the late summer of 1753.


The pilgrimage church at Wies owes its creation to a miracle. After a weepy, neglected, carved effigy of the scourged Christ began restoring sight and curing illnesses in 1738, a pilgrimage grew up almost overnight, flooding the tiny Bavarian village in the Oberammergau with tourists. By 1745, the Premonstratensian monks of Steingaden, who owned the site, undertook to replace the small wooden chapel housing the miraculous image with more dignified structure capable of accommodating the numerous visitors flocking to Wies. To that end, in 1745, they hired renowned architect to Dominikus Zimmermann (1685 -1766) to design and direct the construction of a new church.

VERY FEW CHURCHES were built de novo in the early modern period. Most ecclesiastical architectural commissions involved restoring, rebuilding, refurbishing and/or re-decorating pre-existing churches. The forms and fabrics of many of those venerable buildings had historic and symbolic connotations, which had to be recapitulated, preserved or at least noted in the new work Given these usual constraints on the design process, one can imagine Zimmermann’s reaction to being handed a blank slate by a wealthy patron. Seizing the opportunity, he designed an entirely modern building, every cubic inch of which was harmonized and coordinated to create a unified setting sufficiently glorious for the spectacle of divine intervention in the profane world that the miraculous image effected.

Wies gave Zimmermann the chance to refine and develop the pilgrimage church solution he had created at Steinhausen in the late 1720s. Both have ovular central plans with timber domes supported by a ring of free standing composite supports, a typology with early Christian origins. At Wies, an elongated, tunnel-like choir with a two-story gallery projects from the east end, focusing attention on the miraculous image preserved on the high altar. The interior is indirectly illuminated by a multiplicity of pculi, hidden and visible.

Dominikus entrusted his brother, Johann Baptist Zimmermann, with the painting of the central domed ceiling, as he had at Steinhausen. The fresco unusually depicts the Last Judgement—Wies’ dedication to an obscure object with no pictorial tradition, necessitated iconographical innovation. At the center of the composition appears the rainbow upon which Christ sits in judgement, as specified in the Book of Revelation. Johann Baptist used the it as visual metaphor for the church decoration as a whole: it is composed of vibrant, soft colors; it is shaped like an arch, a visual shorthand for architecture; it is at once symmetrical and asymmetrical; and it literally bridges the architectural and pictorial realms of the building, therefore symbolically bridging the sacred and the profane worlds, just as relics and miraculous objects do.

Although he worked as an altar builder and marbler for the first 20 years of his career, and referred to himself in an inscription inside the Wieskirche as baumeister, by 1745 Zimmermann was primarily sought out for his skills as a master stuccateur. Polychromed stuccowork as a medium falls somewhere between fresco and sculpture—3D painting if you will—and Zimmermann uses stucco as a transition from the highly sculptural architectural and painted portions of the interior. Like wall frescoes, it is an medium with an exacting schedule—the stuccateur lays on a much wet plaster as he can shape and paint in the brief period before it dries and hardens. Once hard, the colors and forms bind permanently to the plaster and cannot be changed or altered without chipping it all out and beginning anew. Both fresco and stucco are performances that demands physical agility and a quick, sure touch.
Zimmermann clearly felt the building of the church to be a life-defining experience. After the nine years on the site overseeing the construction, and carrying out the extensive stucco work himself, upon its completion in 1753, he permanently relocated to Steingaden, spending the remaining decade of his life in close proximity to his masterpiece at Wies.