Art of the 18th Century--2

[ Poussin Lorraine ] [Lebrun Watteau Fragonard ] [ Chardin Boucher ]

[ Gainsborough Canelleto ] [ Wright David Vigée le Brun ]

In the late 17th century and well into the 18th, French art and architecture "fused the baroque aesthetic with an espousal of reason, order, and clarity..." that became known as "neoclassical" (Witt, et al. 175). The order and discipline of French neoclassicism mirrored the political absolutism fostered by Richelieu and Mazarin and epitomized in the reign of Louis XIV, le grand monarch, the Sun King.

Charles Lebrun (1619-1690)

Charles le Brun (or Lebrun) studied under and was influenced by Poussin. He worked for Cardinal Richelieu as a young man, as well as for Nicolas Fouquet, whose beautiful chateau and gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte aroused the envy of Louis XIV. In 1661, the young king, Louis XIV, hired le Brun and named him Premier Paintre du roi. His influence and fame rest on his "contributions to the magnificence of the Grand Manner of Louis and his influence in laying the basis of academicism" (Pioch). "He was the principal instrument through which Louis XIV, abetted by...Colbert imposed his artistic dictatorship" (Roberts).

Chancellor Séguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris (1656)

This painting forms "an enormous pyramid with the figure of Séguier at its apex.... It is a unique record of an important official surrounded by his attendants." (Kren and Marx) Pierre Séguier (1588-1672) was Chancellor of France, shown here entering Rouen in 1660, possibly escorting Louis XIV's bride, the Spanish Infanta Marie Thérèse to her bridegroom. (Roberts) Or, as suggested elsewhere, waiting for Louis XIV himself to enter Paris.

With the beautiful Louise de Vallière in mind in the mid 1600s, Louis XIV began "to enlarge the small hunting lodge at Versailles..." as a kind of lover's hideaway (Witt, et al. 177.) The tradition of the beautiful country house pre-dated the renovation and beautification of Versailles; the age of the splendid country residence actually began in the 16th century. Andrea Palladio, for example, was an important designer (who influenced Thomas Jefferson in his plans for Monticello.) In France, the country chateau became a "magnificent retreat...; for hunting, games, and entertainments; and for escape from life at the royal court" (177). Louis le Vau began the work on Versailles in 1669; Jules Hardouin-Mansart continued its basic design; André Le Nôtre worked on the gardens (ponds, canals, fountains, waterfalls, etc.) to provide an appropriate setting for the Sun King. "Everywhere the court's formality was recalled in the total subjugation of nature to order and design, a formality that showed absolute control" (179).

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (with Jules Hardouin-Mansart)

Le Brun designed the Hall of Mirrors as a gathering place for the court and the site for balls, ballets, and various other entertainments. "Its great windows drew light from the expansive open vistas, and its mirrors reflected that light. At night, filled with candles, it glittered icily" (179). Le Brun was responsible for its creation and decoration. "The overwhelming feeling at Versailles is domination: domination by order, symmetry, balance, and repetition; domination achieved by forcing grass, flowers, hedges, and trees into intricate patterns and by channeling water into pools, fountains, and falls, subdoing nature itself to Louis's ego" (181).

Adoration of the Shepherds (1690)

Le Brun, a man of his era, was also influenced by the prevailing mood of the Baroque. Here he demonstrates his skill in mingling the world beyond with earthly life and controlling the fantastic effects of the light produced by a screened fire. (Kren and Marx)

Strict French classicism did not long survive the deaths of Colbert and Le Brun. New winds began to blow through the court and high society. Especially after the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the court, at least to a certain extent, "abandoned Versailles for the pleasures of town life" (Tansey and Kleiner 886). Rococo exuberance took over! The name, coined derogatorially in the 19th century, comes from the French word, rocaille, or pebble, and coquille, or shell; it refers to small stones and shells used to decorate the interiors of grottoes. Shells emerged as principal motifs in Rococo ornamentation (886). With its feminine look of gaity and charm, the Rococo style was "dominated by the taste and social initiative of women--...Madame de Pompadour in France...Catherine the Great in Russia" (886-888). Rococo artists delighted and excelled in the decorative arts, those small, costly luxuries (mirrors, combs, fans, snuffboxes) that complemented the costume of the French elites. Replacing the massive pseudo marble columns and huge paintings of the Baroque, Rococo designs were curved and elaborate, dainty and rich--for people to enjoy rather than to impress others. Antoine Watteau, according to one critic, "serves to define European Rococo..." (Woodward 54).

Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

Antoine Watteau worked most of his life in Paris, working there from 1702 until his death in 1721. He was less influenced by the Poussin-Le Brun school of painting than he was by "the new mood in art and in life, a mood made up of boredom, vague discontent and a desire to get away from the 'Versailles spiri.'" (Roberts). While the French Royal Academy acknowledged his originality, its members didn't quite know what to do with him, finally admitting him in 1717. A recent critic of Jed Perl's new book, Antoine's Alphabet, wrote that Watteau "did not invent neurotic melancholia or bittersweet irony, but many of the delicate young men and women sashaying through his paintings, whether in pastoral or urban settings, seem precociously aware of acting in a world whose uncertain meaning they don't dare to fathom" (Woodward 54).

Plaisirs d'amour or The Pleasures of Love (1718-1719)

Watteau excelled in his depictions of "revelry and pleasure, balls, picnics, hunts, hancing and the seductive chase..., showing the diversions of a small leisured class in their most favorable light..." (Roberts. Woodward comments on Watteau's themes of of love, daydreaming, flirtation..." (54).


The Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717-1719)

In The Pilgrimage to Cythera, Watteau presents couples who move through the forest as they depart from the enchanted island of Venus/Aphrodite to return, sadly, to the real world. This painting is considered his masterpiece, painted to earn admission to the French Academy. Art critic Karen Rosenberg comments on Watteau's "exquisite choreography" in Cythera (C26). In it, he shows his artistic debt more to Rubens than to Poussin and Le Brun. With Watteau, the Rococo "carried the day," replacing both neoclassicism and the Baroque with its lighter, more delicate style (Tansey and Kleiner 890-891).

In this painting of love and Arcadian happiness, Watteau nevertheless incorporates shadowy wistfulness, melancholy, and perhaps an intimation of "the swift passage of youth and pleasure" (Tansey and Kleiner 891). Like Mozart and Chopin, Watteau died young but exercised considerable influence on contemporary art and artists. Cythera is included in a recent exhibition at NY MOMA, where Rosenberg urges viewers to notice the "atmosphere of civilized hedonism," (C26) so characteristic of the court of the Sun King.


Watteau painted Le Mezzetin between 1717 and 1719, conveying in it a sense of ineffable sadness. "Mezzetin," which means half-measure, "was a comic character, the valet, a buffoon who never got the girl" (Pioch). Watteau shows another side to his gifts as an artist: "...the hands and head..." of the 'buffoon' "are drawn with surgical precision..." (Roberts). In this work, art historians note the influence of Titian and Rubens, as well as the roccoco undercurrent of wistfulness and melancholy.


Watteau influenced Fragonard and Boucher, whose themes also concerned "love, artfully and archly pursued through erotic frivolity and playful intrigu." (Tansey and Kleiner 891).

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)

Although he studied with Chardin, Fragonard demonstrates exhibits the influence of Watteau and especially Boucher. Regardless of the often frivolous subject matter of his paintings, Fragonard's were widely admired for their brilliant color. He created a number of decorative pieces for Madame du Barry, one of Louis XV's mistresses. The more serious topics, the rise of neo-classicism as sponsored by David, and the French Revolution, essentially ruined Fragonard's career--no more aristocratic commissions of delightful frolicking in the garden for the buying public!

The Swing (1767) "is a typical 'intrigue' picture. A young gentleman has managed an arrangement by which an unsuspecting old bishop swings the young man's pretty sweetheart higher and higher, while her lover stretches out to admire her ardently from a stragegic position on the ground. The young lady flirtatiously and boldly kicks off her shoe at the little stature of the god of discretion, who holds his finger to his lips" (Tansey and Kleiner 892). The painting reflects Watteau in its setting, a luxuriant and perfumed bower, glowing with pastel colors, soft light, and sensuality (892). The Swing was an almost immediate success, not only for its technical excellence, but for its naughty suggestion that the young man is looking up her skirt, and the priest to the right is her lover.

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The Bathers (1765)

One art historian wrote of The Bathers, "...[A]nyone looking at...[it]...might well be forgiven for thinking it pure titillation.... Les Baigneuses is flesh and fantasy, a masculine daydream, a pastoral caprice..." (Roberts). By the 1770s, popular taste was beginning to turn away from Fragonard's light-hearted style.

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Rosenberg, Karen. "Play On: Musical Mischief Makers Cavorting on Canvas." The New York Times.
October 2, 2009.



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