Antoine Watteau, Les Charmes de la vie (The Wallace Collection)
The poetical term "fête galante" is impossible to translate directly into English, but evokes, in its original French, the ethos and essence of these works. This new genre of paintings and drawings blossomed in the early eighteenth century during the Regency period (1715 – 1723). Since Louis XV was only five years old in 1715, Louis XIV’s nephew, the Duke of Orléans, became regent. The court left Versailles to take up residence in Paris. Thus began a period marked by its liberalisation of institutions, religion and ethics, after the rigour and political disasters of the last years of the preceding reign – in the words of a popular song, “C’est le joli temps de la Regence / Où l’on fit tout, excepté pénitence” (It’s the time of the Regency / When we can do everything, except penitence). The movement’s central figure was Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721). Inspired by Venetian painting and images of bucolic merrymaking in the Flemish tradition, Watteau and his followers created a new form, that transformed these models into a contemporary language of the time. Paintings depict amorous scenes in real or imagined settings garlanded with luxuriant vegetation; idealised dancers, travelling musicians and commedia dell’arte actors (only recently allowed back into society after their ban by Louis XIV) inhabit their naturalistic outdoor ‘stages’. The poetical and fantastical atmospheres that are a mark of his work are accompanied by a quest for elegance and sophistication characteristic of the Rococo movement.