Jean-Antoine Watteau: The Music Party (Les charmes de la vie) - c.1718
London, Wallace Collection
Watteau’s relatively small paintings were, in part, a response to a new vogue in Paris at the beginning of the eighteenth century for more intimate, less formal works. He effectively invented a new pictorial genre, the fêtes galantes — portrayals of elegant outdoor gatherings engaged in nothing more taxing than the pursuit of fashionable pleasures, often accompanied by music. These paintings create a delightful mood of nostalgic wistfulness and ambiguity. Watteau was not interested in depicting reality let alone specific events. His cast of commedia dell’arte characters accompanied by members of the leisured classes inhabit a world of eternal summer in which everyone is at ease and usually in pursuit of an amorous liaison. However the euphoria is tinged with the realisation that life can also be cruel and that youth is not everlasting. Rather like that idyllic summer two centuries later, in 1914, the participants in the fêtes galantes appear to be oblivious to the fact that their nemesis may not be far away. Watteau’s personal nemesis was indeed very close, taking the form of the tuberculosis which ended his life at a tragically early age.
However, in The Music Party the idyll continues. The gathering is taking place in an indeterminate architectural setting — hardly a ruin but perhaps some sort of external loggia although the pillars do seem a little tall for this. In the parkland other groups are enjoying the day. In the foreground, dominating the centre of the composition, a lute player strikingly dressed in pink silk strives to tune his instrument. To the right a black servant is selecting some chilled wine. To the left of the lute player a group has congregated; a lady sits on a chair playing a guitar; a man in a red cloak leans on the back of her chair. Perhaps he has just made some sort of amorous advance for the young guitarist is studiedly averting her gaze; or perhaps she has been distracted by the two young girls, one in pink, the other playing with a spaniel. We will never know. They will continue to inhabit Watteau’s dream world. In the real world we do know with melancholy certainty that life’s pleasures are all too transitory.
1720 Jean-Marc Nattier: Portrait of Catherine I, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum