There are two ways to approach “The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting,” which recently opened at the National Gallery of Art: as a splendid montage of 100 or so mini- dramas — windows, of varying sizes, into the quotidian activities of the 18th century French, replete with preening and partying, sympathetic laundresses and sensual statuary; or as an aesthetic history lesson, each painting a notch on the timeline of a century, which produced not only two of the most profound revolutions to hit planet earth, but also mayonnaise, roller skates and laughing gas.
With that in mind, the exhibit begins not with a bang, but with the pleasant pop of a champagne cork marking the merrymaking of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s fêtes galantes — refined, intimate scenes of dancing, lovemaking and general amusement reflective of the new emphasis (after the death of the Sun King) on the more elegant city pursuits of heart and mind that emerged as the power center shifted from Versailles to Paris.
In these canvases, fine ladies dance the minuet in sylvan settings, voluptuous statues beckon seductively and a heartbroken clown strumming a guitar laments the indifference of a stony Venus.
The first few rooms of the exhibit build on the theme of cultivated leisure and lightheartedness. Watteau acolyte Nicolas Lancret’s “A Lady in the Garden Taking Coffee with Some Children” is sure to warm the heart of even the most cynical Starbucks executive with its charming depiction of a well-heeled mother teaspooning the potent brew into her young daughter’s mouth. In another Lancret gem, “La Camargo Dancing” (from the National Gallery’s permanent collection), the great ballerina is shown in her most archetypal pose decked in garlands and surrounded on stage by a gathering of revelers.
But it is in the work of François Boucher and Jean-François de Troy (“Perhaps less of a household name than Boucher,” noted curator Philip Conisbee of de Troy) that the portrayal of aristocratic dalliance and assorted fripperies finds its high watermark.
Both were history painters — then the all-powerful Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture’s officially sanctioned form of painting — but each was also an avid interpreter of daily life in the beau monde.
Among the most compelling of these canvases is Boucher’s “Presumed Portrait of Madame Boucher,” where a coquettish young woman, possibly the artist’s wife, strikes a pristine pose on her pink chaise lounge; and de Troy’s “Declaration of Love” (once in the personal collection of the Prussian King Frederick II), which, with its idealized view of nobles importuning a klatch of brocade-clad, Chinese fan carrying ladies, invokes the same sense of quixotic Orientalism found in the work of the American expatriate painter James McNeil Whistler more than 100 years later.
The mere recording of the unexamined life did not carry on without critical comment, however. The questioning of these idealized portrayals is evident in Charles-Antoine Coypel’s “Children’s Games,” where nine marauding youths in the midst of a lady’s mock toilette are clearly meant to poke fun at the treatments of the second estate found in Boucher and de Troy.
And other works, such as Pierre Subleyras’ relatively randy “The Packsaddle,” which shows a naked woman whose lover is applying paint to the area just above her nether region should quickly dispel notions of the exhibit as simply an extended meditation on frou-frou mannerisms.
As the century rolled on, forces were conspiring, which to some degree would expand the focus of genre painters to include the pursuits of the less exulted classes.
In 1737, the Royal Academy initiated the first annual public art exhibits at the Louvre, which not only introduced artistic works to a broader, decidedly less mandarin audience, but created a whole new profession: that of the art critic. At the same time, the Enlightenment anti-hierarchical principles of rationality and egalitarianism espoused by writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were taking hold, ushering in new interest in ordinary lives and their moral improvement.
Accordingly, the fine ladies and hunting parties that dominate the exhibit give way, at least momentarily, to the world “below stairs.” Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s somber-colored renderings of scullery maids, embroiderers and governesses elicit the understated nobility of the less fortunate classes. When Chardin does turn his paintbrush to the more leisurely pursuits — such as in “The House of Cards” and “Soap Bubbles,” both featuring young boys at play — it is in quiet warning to the fleeting, transitory nature of life and its pleasures, said Conisbee.
Such themes are expanded on in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “moral painting” — so called by Encyclopédie editor and critic Denis Diderot because of its undeniably didactic subtexts. Armed with the staunch family values of a Republican revolutionary, Greuze used his paintbrush to pontificate on everything from the undesirability of premarital sex to the satisfactions of domestic life and hands-on parenting. But this being the French, after all, it isn’t long before the national sense of laissez-faire, joie de vivre re-emerges. Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s confectionary compositions, such “Blindman’s Bluff” and “Young Girl Playing with Her Dog” — two frothy works of unfettered sensuality — explore the innocent beginnings of erotic longing. And, Louis-Rolland Trinquesse takes a stab at the gallantry of salon life in paintings such as “The Music Party” and “Interior Scene with Two Women and a Gentleman.”
Of course, there is a limit to how much 18th-century upper-crust posturing one can endure — no matter how remarkable — which is why Louis-Léopold Boilly’s 1807 “The Game of Billiards,” coming toward the end of the exhibit, stands as a welcome cap to the French genre experience. Here, both sexes freely commingle, as a woman lines up her shot, and children and dogs gambol about the foreground. There is an air of comfortable freedom and growing sexual equality about the portrait that, nevertheless, retains the traditional French devotion to the motto “vive la différence.”
Taken as a whole, the 27 French artists included in “The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard” span the arc of the 1700s, which saw the decline of both church and monarchy, as well as political and societal upendings in America and France. Taken individually, they are good enough to merit at least the consideration of a brief rapprochement with our erstwhile ally.
“The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting,” runs through Jan. 11, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. For a complete listing of activities and events associated with the exhibit, go to www.nga.gov.