Tag Archives: french painting – 18thc.



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.


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).

JEAN-BAPTISTE OUDRY: Le peintre animalier

Although he had been elected to the Académie Royale, Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) avoided the higher genres of history and religious painting, establishing himself instead as the leading peintre animalier of the first half of the 18th century, counting Louis XV as his chief patron. Oudry’s degree of specialization was made possible by the great expansion of the art market in the 18th century, when members of the bourgeoisie joined the aristocracy in buying and collecting. The fact that Oudry, a painter of non-heroic, no historic pictures, received royal attention and patronage reflects the degree to which the monarchy had to a certain extent taken on the tastes of the bourgeoisie. This is no longer the world or Louis XIV and Le Brun.

The voluminous production of Oudry’s large workshop is teeming with fauna, including scenes of the royal hunt; images of exotic wild and domesticated animals; portraits of animals and pets owned by the king and his courtiers, allegorical works featuring animals and images of animals as menu items— game birds, rabbits, wild boar, and venison laid out alongside leeks, bread, earthenware cocottes and copper pots ready for cooking.

Royal patronage came in the form of the directorships of the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry manufactories. These large complex enterprises, which produced prestige, luxury goods for export were vital to the national economy, and a major source of income for the crown. Oudry not only ran both well, he provided the designs for many tapestries.

Many of the paintings bearing Oudry’s name were produced by studio assistants and there is a definite sense of art being created and sold by the square yard, with a purely decorative purpose in mind. His meticulous drawings, which served as models for paintings, show his real talents, combining empirical observation and suavity of line.

Oudry’s images of the behaviors, habitats, and interactions of animals participate in the taxonomic and descriptive natural science associated with the Enlightenment. His pictures of oddly-formed deer antlers, set against simple backgrounds and identified by documentary labels, are masterpieces of empirical observation, conceiving of painting as a means to advance knowledge as opposed to flattering patrons.

That said, Oudry flattered his royal patron plenty by using the conventions of formal portraiture to portray his well-bred hunting dogs at rest and at work, including Louis XV’s favorite hounds, the poised and dignified greyhounds, Misse and Turlu. Elsewhere, Oudry borrows from history painting to transform dogs chasing a deer into a elevated, heroic drama. He also overlays his accurately-depicted animal subjects with anecdote, sentiment and narrative borrowed from genre paintings.