WATTEAU
AND
ROCOCO PAINTING
IN
FRANCE
Jean-Antoine Watteau is credited with developing a new category of painting, the fête galante. These are
paintings of modest size that show well-dressed people enjoying each other’s company in an outdoor
setting. The Pilgrimage to Cythera is the fête galante that Watteau presented as a demonstration piece to
gain entrance into the French Royal Academy. Because the academy did not have an appropriate category
for such work—it was not high-minded enough to be considered history painting, nor commonplace
enough to be considered genre painting—they established a new category specifically for this type of
painting. In The Pilgrimage several couples wistfully leave the mythical island of Love after a day of
pleasure. Most rococo paintings have a playfully erotic subject, but in Watteau’s paintings there is a more
subdued and sometimes sad undertone. Watteau’s brushwork is light, feathery, and sure. In his paintings,
the natural world is soft and glowing. His colors are typical of rococo painters: bright pastels, corals,
turquoise, and gold. He was a master at capturing delicate gestures and poses, as if all of his actors were
dancing an effortless minuet.
Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717
Other French rococo painters created much more overtly erotic scenes. François Boucher is best known
for his scenes of naked nymphs and cupids cavorting together. Jean-Honoré Fragonard often depicted
flirtatious scenes, where aristocratic young ladies use their charms to entice equally aristocratic young
men. Some of Fragonard’s best works are The Swing, painted in 1766, and the series called The Progress
of Love, painted for Louis XV’s mistress in the 1770s.
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