Fête galante

[fet ga-lahnt]

A fête galante is a rich outdoor party in a paradisic setting. The term translates from French literally as "gallant party". It is closely related to, and may be considered a type of, fête champêtre.

The term "fête galante" is used most often to refer to a genre of drawings and paintings depicting such parties from the 18th century. Fête galante paintings were done by people such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Pater, Jean François de Troy, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Nicolas Lancret and Pierre Antoine Quillard.

Antoine Watteau specifically created the fête galante painting style as a compromise between two drives. On the one hand, most of his funding came from private individuals, rather than from the government. On the other hand, Watteau wanted recognition from the government-appointed Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Académie ranked scenes of everyday life and portraits, the paintings most desired by private patrons, as lower than morally educational paintings illustrating history and mythology. By portraying his patrons in scenes reminiscent of the mythologized land of Arcadia, where humans had supposedly lived in leisurely harmony with nature, Watteau was able to get his paintings the highest ranking at the Académie and still flatter his buyers.

Féte galante paintings are an important part of the rococo period of art, which saw the focus of European arts move away from the hierarchical, standardized grandeur of the church and royal court and toward an appreciation for intimacy and personal pleasures. Nonetheless, the lush, outdoor settings of fête galante paintings were often mined from earlier paintings, especially from Venetian paintings of the 16th century and Dutch paintings of the 17th century.

Some important examples

  • L'Accord Parfait - painted by Watteau between 1717 and 1718. A lovely young woman holds music for a homely old man playing a flute, while other leisure class sorts linger about.
  • Le Collation - by Pater. Gentry flirt and pick flowers before a female nude reclining on a mound shaped like a sea shell. The nude probably represents the goddess Venus.
  • Danse dans le Parc - by Lancret. Lavishly dressed courtiers dance before the statue of an heroic male nude. Male nudes were a favorite subject of history paintings, so this statue clearly is meant to elevate the dancers to "historical" status.
  • Declaration of Love - painted by de Troy in 1731. De Troy's style is much more realistic than most. This painting was purchased by Frederick II of Prussia and hung in the Sans Souci palace.
  • Les Deux Cousines - painted by Watteau between 1717 and 1718. Two women in white satin gowns are offered a red cape by a gallant young man. As in other fête galante paintings, Greco-Roman statues along the lake help elevate this genre scene to history painting status.
  • Gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli - painted by Fragonard. Classical architecture provides the backdrop for an outdoor meal and games.
  • A Lady in a Garden Taking Coffee With Some Children - painted by Lancret about 1742. A woman seated next to a fountain in a lavish garden spoons some exotic coffee over to her children while two men- probably a husband and a servant- look on.
  • Mezzetin - painted by Watteau between 1718 and 1720. Not technically a fête galante, this painting shows a pathetic figure from the Italian commedia del'arte serenading an ignorant statue.
  • A Pilgrimage to Cythera - painted by Watteau in 1717. Beautifully dressed arisocrats, attended by cherubs, visit an island supposedly dedicated to the ancient love goddess Cythera. This painting is often held up as the prototype of the fête galante.
  • The Shepherds - painted by Watteau about 1716. This painting plays on a long tradition of aristocrats pretending to be rural shepherds, a tradition which flourished in the 18th century, most famously at the mock hamlet of Marie Antoinette.
  • Venetian Pleasures - painted by Watteau between 1718 and 1719. Two dancers (the man in Arabian costume) perform for a flirtatious crowd of onlookers in front of a statue of Venus. The bagpiper may be a self-portrait.


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