Excerpt from Master’s thesis, “Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes and the Culture of Emulation”, 2022

Watteau’s works, through the life experiences of the artist to the collecting habits of those who composed the bulk of his buyers, operated within the realm of social emulation. For his bourgeois buyers, Watteau’s fêtes galantes would have functioned as a currency of status in both their existence as objects of art as well as in their visual offerings: luscious, overgrown nature, sumptuous gowns and costumes, and idle leisure. The tactics of bourgeois sociability, of appropriation and repurposing, of rendering abstract and malleable symbols that once were tethered to singular, historically rooted meaning, and even of self-conscious imitation all find home in Watteau's works. His fêtes galantes are explorations in social performance, in the interchange of gesture, posture, and dress. However, he is not concerned with the specificity of meaning, but in the overall effect, in the pure aestheticism of the social body. The elusiveness and ambiguity in these works reflect this concern, but they also reflect a more general phenomenon occurring in his society—the visual discursive field of an old order being permeated by foreign agents. The visual culture of one was being parasitized by the other, transforming them both in the process.

The instability, or rather fluidity, of the discursive structure of cultural emulation, with its unmooring of signifiers, opened up space within the visual imagination for unsanctioned and hybrid commixture of genres (both high and low), styles, and forms. From the explosion of consumer goods, with the faux-luxe among them, to the profusion of advertisements, both shop signs and in print, the visual landscape of early eighteenth-century Paris opened out into a kaleidoscopic and heterogeneous display of visual forms. In this context, the perfect playing ground was cultivated for Watteau's imaginative faculties and allowed for an exploration in ambiguity, artifice, and social performativity as an aesthetic act.

Artifice and the deceptions of sight are all front and center in Watteau’s fêtes galantes. For instance, there is no narrative to follow, no privileged site of action, no central figure or figural grouping to anchor our attention and thus interpretation. Instead, what is provided is a lateral dispersal of figures where the primacy of the human form is thwarted, even as the body’s carnal desires are invoked. The figures are dwarfed within the pictorial space that they encompass with their bodies and flesh hidden underneath their costumes. In effect, this deemphasis of the body obstructs the potential for erotic gratification and thus precludes any seduction of pictorial illusion with it. Instead of becoming wholly enraptured within the figures’ world, which becomes an extension of our own, we are constantly drawn in only to be pushed back out again. The space in which the figures reside is unnavigable; there is no single vantage point nor a single source of light, and the spatial relations between figures and objects do not follow the laws of perspectival convention. Instead, Watteau stresses an admittance to painting’s inherent artificiality and attention to its surface quality. In effect, Watteau’s works renege on the traditional prerogatives of Academic painting of either platonic ideals or to mimesis of nature. Instead, he allowed his art to function on its own terms. Mimicking the logic of the imitation luxury item or the emulating bourgeois, Watteau took the potent visuality of polite society, emptied it of any direct social and historical meaning, and transformed it into unfettered aesthetic play.

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