Tastes may change, but emotions are timeless

French painters of the 18th century offer a visual feast at National Gallery


October 12, 2003|By Nancy Forgione | Nancy Forgione,Special to the Sun

Hairstyles, clothing and manners may have changed radically since the 18th century, but certain essential aspects of human behavior remain much the same. The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting, an exhibition that opens today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, illuminates that point, offering an appealing and comprehensive look at how men, women and children in 18th-century France whiled away their daily hours.

The exhibition gathers together a hundred or so genre paintings -- scenes of everyday life -- by those three painters and others. The art spans the 1700s and reflects the cultural, intellectual and political shifts that marked the era. But what touches the viewer most directly is the surprising accessibility of the people in these paintings. Their actions and emotions are so familiar as to collapse the distance between centuries.

Like us, these painted figures balance duty with pleasure. Their leisure pursuits are trivial or profound, sometimes both. They nurture their inner, imaginative lives and tend to their social lives with enthusiasm.

The children play dress-up, build card houses, blow bubbles, cavort with their puppies, and sometimes get scolded. The adults are equally eager to amuse themselves. Decked out in the finest contemporary fashions, they enjoy picnics, dances, festivals, billiards and blindman's buff. Above all, they play the game of love.

The pursuit of love was clearly a favorite theme of 18th-century painters and of the patrons who bought their art. It's a dominant motif that recurs, both explicitly and implicitly, throughout the exhibition. Yet the mood of that pursuit varies significantly from painter to painter, and it's worth paying attention to the differences.

The first room of the exhibition introduces the 18th century's first great French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau. Keep looking at his pictures of fetes galantes -- the sort of elegant outdoor picnic scenes that were his specialty -- until gradually the clusters of graceful people sort themselves out into paired couples, who turn away from the ostensible entertainment toward each other, to whisper and flirt. Watteau conveys the rituals of courting through subtle gestures that suggest the complex nuances of human emotion, but an undercurrent of wistfulness pervades the atmosphere.

Paintings about love

Later in the century, Jean-Honore Fragonard focuses on the theme of the amorous rendezvous, but his couples take a furtive glee in their games of love. Fragonard injects a naughty humor into his scenes: even the trees and foliage in the background appear to swell with romantic urges, and the marble statues comment on the action.

In other respects, the art grows more serious as the century progresses. The exhibition's curators note the impact of societal and political changes on the production of art. With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the absolute power of the French monarchy began to diminish. The mid-century emergence of Enlight-enment thinkers instigated the social critique that ultimately led to the revolution at the close of the century.

The market for art expanded during the 18th century. The great state-sponsored exhibitions known as salons began in 1737, bringing art to a much wider public audience and the birth of art criticism, a new factor in an artist's reputation.

All that romantic intrigue, all those stylish satin dresses, all that frivolous subject matter began to irk these critics. The greatest of them, Denis Diderot -- a central figure in the Enlightenment -- called for a greater moral weight in art.

Previously, the highest ambition of a painter had been to paint scenes from history and mythology. Genre painting only became widely popular in the 18th century.

One ambitious artist, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, attempted to elevate genre painting to the level of history painting. The show includes examples of his stagey narrative compositions that delivered moral messages about lost innocence, domestic piety and family values. The Enlight-enment preached new ideas about family life and parental responsibility, values that surface in the works of other painters in the exhibition.

Greuze's works, hugely successful in their day, haven't aged well. His figures feel stiff and artificial, like actors holding poses.

Inner life glimpsed

The painter whose works remain perhaps the most compelling of all is Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Ordinary housemaids, governesses and children inhabit his domestic interiors, and his much-admired technique has a delicate but earthy quality that suits his subjects.

With diligence and dignity, Chardin's servants peel vegetables, go marketing, instruct children. Their tendency to put duty before pleasure can read as a moral stance. The youngsters in Chardin's paintings build card houses, draw, blow bubbles -- seemingly trivial pursuits that Chardin infused with a new gravity, so that they sustain their own kind of moral integrity.

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