The "fêtes galantes" in the Louis XV period

The "fêtes galantes" in the Louis XV period

You've probably already seen them, on Porcelain, painting or even tapestry, these gallant couples courting each other in the countryside. But who are they? Why are they sitting on the ground in such elegant clothes? Tired of the formality of the Baroque art of the previous period, we enter an era turned towards lightness. The court left Versailles for Paris, a place that was conducive to more freedom and joie de vivre, which encouraged love. Let's look back at the French 18th century, which saw "la vie en rose".

The "fête galante" as major art

In the 17th century, genre painting, a great Venetian and Flemish tradition, was considered minor. They were merely anecdotal scenes of everyday life that did not please the Academy. Love scenes had no place among the intellectual elite of the aristocracy. It was not until 1717 with the reception piece Pèlerinage à l'île de Cythère by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) that things changed. The Academy, faced with his talent, refused to relegate him to a minor genre and decided to create the genre of the fête galante.

The aim is to represent a moment of social idleness of the aristocracy in a rural setting. In addition, the notion of seduction is strongly present. Antoine Watteau no longer depicts everyday life but a lightness that appeals to both private individuals, from whom most of the funding comes, and the government-appointed Académie des Beaux-Arts.

biscuit porcelain with gallant hunting sceneBisque hunting scene with gallant couple, 18th century

But what distinguishes the fête galante from another scene of aristocratic life? The theme of passionate love in bucolic settings is a pretext for being bold and original in the composition of the work. The artists play on the modernity of the clothes while integrating them into the timelessness of the place. Watteau's works illustrate the fashions that were contemporary to him. Art historians will call the pleats in the back of French dresses of the period "Watteau's pleats" following his precise descriptions. These clothes show the high status of the protagonists. This allows the aristocrats to recognize themselves in these idle and delicate scenes.

There is also a strong emphasis on theatricality and doublespeak. Gallantry is adorned with sophisticated codes specific to the aristocracy. They made it possible to determine who belonged to good society and who was excluded, while the bourgeoisie began to have the means to blend in with the nobility. Being a gallant man meant knowing how to please in society by one's appearance, manners and wit. Everything is a pretext for gallantry, from the movement of a fan to the position of a beauty spot on a young woman's face. The codes are inscribed on everyday objects, from fans to the busks (a piece of wood inserted in the front of bodices to maintain their rigidity) of stays. This led to a very diverse education among aristocratic youth, but it remained superficial. This inspired the dandyism of the 19th century.


gilt bronze and porcelain clock

Antique gilt bronze and porcelain clock with a gallant scene

Not all these parties were held indoors. It would be shocking to be too enterprising in a salon or at a ball. It is during walks outside, far from the obligations of etiquette, that love can be most enterprising.

"Pastorale" or loving each other in the open air

The reason for trying to get closer to nature is to show that you are educated and have read the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). According to him, Man is good by nature and it is society that compromises him. Thus, those in society who are closest to nature are considered respectable. This leads to a sentimentalist view of the peasantry, which is considered purer. Illustrating shepherds is an opportunity to express the fate of feelings on people who are considered 'simple' and 'innocent'. Indeed, the aristocracy, too far removed from nature, is blamed for vanity and lust rather than fate.


This idea is not new; the pastoral was popularised in literature as early as the 3rd century BC by Virgil in Les bucoliques, but really took off during the Italian Renaissance. In France, it was Honoré D'Urfé (1607-1628) who brought the pastoral to light with L'Astrée in 1607. The novel describes the adventures of young men whose noble ancestors chose to get away from the wars to live in hamlets on the banks of the Lignon.

  Detail of a gallant scene on an antique porcelain and gilt bronze planter

The theme of the Pastoral in the visual arts arrived with the decoration of the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris by François Boucher in 1737-1738. He conceived scenes of carefree and playful youth in an idealised image of peasant life. The shepherds and shepherdesses, dressed like lords and whose bare feet are never soiled, look after flocks requiring little care. They seem totally unaffected by the harsh conditions of rural life.


By surrounding oneself with works representing this ideal society, educated but close to nature, one appropriates its virtues. Transposing a gallant scene into a bucolic landscape is a way of ensuring that the feelings expressed are well founded.


This glorification of country life reached its peak with the Queen's hamlet of Marie-Antoinette. She asked Richard Mique to create a rural village with thatched cottages and a farm on the outskirts of the Trianon. There are a barn, a dairy, a stable, a pigsty and a henhouse. Legend has it that she "played the shepherdess", which is not exactly the reality, as she used this place mainly as a place for walking. Nevertheless, these buildings show the great attraction that the rural world and its activities had for aristocratic society.

The image of a Rococo lifestyle

After the death of Louis XIV, France aspired to a more relaxed atmosphere. Governed by a very strict etiquette and involved in numerous wars, the nobility took more freedom during the Regency (1715-1723) and morals became more relaxed. It was under the patronage of Mme de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, that the essence ofRococo art was defined. The colour palette became lighter, with shades of pink, blue and blond reflecting the joie de vivre of the court. Pink in particular, the colour of roses and of the goddess Venus, became more important to imitate the marquise who wore it at Versailles. Rococo became a lifestyle based on the refined pleasure of the senses and aesthetic satisfaction.

In this respect, the subject spread to all media. The Sèvres manufacture (a royal manufactury from 1759) used the engravings and subjects of François Boucher, a protégé of Madame de Pompadour, for its porcelain creations. The whiteness of the young women's complexions enhances the whiteness of the material. Between 1778 and 1797, a large number of pastoral themes are found in biscuits, small unglazed statuettes, which are used as table decorations. This was an opportunity to stimulate the imagination of the spectators and to lead to conversations between the guests. One notices both the richness of his host's décor and his ability to see beyond the innocent scenes.

blue porcelain cup in the Sèvres style

 Blue porcelain cup in the Sèvres style, 19th century

For make no mistake about it, country romancing is not only reserved for true love. The second half of the 18th century saw the arrival of the notion of libertinage. The term had already existed in the 17th century, but it represented above all a freedom of thought and a certain inconstancy of love. From the reign of Louis XV, a bon vivant king and lover of pleasures, it became synonymous with the search for carnal pleasures. This led to a double language of works between apparently chaste scenes and crude sexual connotations.

The flute-playing shepherds can show the ease of falling in love in a musical atmosphere surrounded by harmonious nature, as well as representing a sexual act for 18th century society. The play of looks sometimes gives way to explicit gestures or dishevelled clothing, as is the case on the Bisque hunting scene with a gallant couple from our collection.

The end of the party, the arrival of Neoclassicism

This pervasion of the aristocracy did not please everyone, and from 1750 onwards, we begin to see a movement in opposition to Rocaille art: Neoclassicism. Pastoral scenes continued to exist, but they took a more virtuous turn. Gone are the embracing lovers, the representations focus on the noble values of working the land. All that remains of the rocaille festivals is the décor of an idealised rural Arcadia , an image of ancient Rome. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), a virtuoso of bucolic love, bore the brunt of this change in taste. His series of paintings for the Château de Louveciennes of Madame du Barry, another of Louis XV's mistresses, depicting the stages of love, was returned to him. In its place, the commissioner hanged paintings by Joseph Marie Vien (1716-1809), which was much more neoclassical.

clock the shepherds of arcadia, barbedienneClock the shepherds of Arcadia, 19th century, detail

In the 1780s, there was a total rejection of the Rocaille style, which was considered too frivolous and decadent. Moralistic history painting took over from genre scenes. The colour palette used became darker and the colour pink was abandoned in favour of red, which was considered more serious. After the archaeological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a return to the sources of art was sought.