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.