PRINT May 2003


“The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard”

AN EXTRAORDINARY OPPORTUNITY TO SEE MUCH of the best painting done in eighteenth-century France begins this summer in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada: “The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting.” The number and significance of pictures by each of the three principals alone would constitute miniature retrospectives of astonishing quality. The same could be said for Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who does not receive titular status but enjoys equal prominence both in art history and in the present exhibition. Just to have the opportunity to see his Marriage Contract of 1761, a mainstay of the French national collection since the ancien régime, alongside its 1763 pendant Filial Piety, which was spirited away to Saint Petersburg by Catherine the Great, makes the exhibition a necessary pilgrimage for anyone with even a passing interest in the period.

And I doubt that anyone’s curiosity would not progress to enthusiasm on viewing the show as a whole, for this is a period in which the intensity of innovation and pictorial discovery bears comparison to any of the richest episodes in art history. The works of this period—represented here by one hundred paintings by twenty-five artists—are gathered under the term “genre painting.” In no way implying “generic,” that term is something of an art insiders’ shorthand, one that was never precisely used in the period to designate the scenes of everyday life and pastoral fantasy that make up the exhibition. Colin B. Bailey, chief curator at the Frick Collection and principal organizer of the show, explains this anomaly in his introductory essay, where he rightly sees “genre” as having designated any and all subject matter that didn’t belong in the most elevated category of classical and biblical narratives. For most of the era when such things mattered, the existence and actions of ordinary human subjects didn’t enjoy official recognition as a category of painting at all. In the early decades of the century, such themes were usually described as being “in the Flemish manner,” which signaled the extraordinary vogue for small northern paintings (Dutch as well as Flemish) on the part of French collectors just beginning to flex their muscles in the art market.

As a consequence, the most refined Parisian interiors—in an irony well remarked on at the time—were hung with scene after scene of lowborn criminals, drunkards, and carousing rustics. The conceits of pastoral identification played a part in this, alongside the need for small-scale paintings in more intimate settings, the growing prestige of virtuoso technique irrespective of subject matter, and the lack of suitable French metaphors for aristocratic lives devoted more to private gratification than to weighty public command.

But local painters were quickly enlisted to enlarge and update the corpus of such imagery. This sometimes took outlandish form, as when the Duc d’Antin (who was then in charge of all royal patronage) commissioned Watteau’s follower Nicolas Lancret to depict Louis XV’s Polish-born bride and her entourage bogged down in the mud on the way to her wedding in 1725: The painter was instructed just how to represent the various humiliations of the ladies-in-waiting and to “include the most grotesque and messy details he can.”

This painting is now lost, which is no surprise in light of its waspish courtier’s disdain for his master’s foreign consort. But this extreme case points up the mobility and responsiveness to contemporary exigencies that French painters had rapidly summoned, along with an impressive general level of skill, which they would maintain unabated through the Revolution and beyond. The great talents emblazoned in the exhibition’s title, along with Greuze and François Boucher, provided the signposts of theme and style, brilliantly extrapolated from stale Academic prototypes and their own admired European exemplars of the past like Rubens, Teniers, Castiglione, and Rembrandt.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, one unimpressed critic had sought to name a fashionable earthen palette “rembrunie,” as a somber tonality overcame the fresh hues that had suited the carelessly libertine sensibilities prevailing in Watteau’s time. The whole enterprise, at least in the ambitious mode pursued by Greuze, had by then acquired the name “painting of morals.” Ethical seriousness, once reserved for events in the lives of the saintly and highborn, came to rest in the heart of uprightly modest families like those in Greuze’s Marriage Contract and Filial Piety—before-and-after scenes that managed to hold the attention of their enthusiastic admirers over the two-year interval separating the great Salon exhibitions in the Louvre.

But the exhibition in Ottawa makes clear that Chardin had privately pioneered this modern sobriety well in advance of its public approbation, just as Fragonard’s ferocious talent, serving an exclusive clientele, held together the tensions between Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s optimistic cult of natural feeling and Choderlos de Laclos’s dark insight into the Enlightenment’s calculus of human pleasure.

“The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting” is on view at the National Gallery of Canada, June 6–Sept. 7; travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Oct. 12–Jan. 11, 2004; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Feb. 8–May 9, 2004.

Thomas Crow is director of the Getty Research Institute and a contributing editor of Artforum.