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The Fête Champêtre

CAT 158 Lightfoot after Watteau fete champetre MC.jpg

CAT 158. Peter Lightfoot after Watteau. The Fête Champêtre. From a Picture in the Possession of John Hilditch, Esq. London: George Virtue, 1846. Melville Chapin Collection.

In 1846 Peter Lightfoot’s engraving of Watteau’s Fête Champêtre was reproduced as the frontispiece in the Gems of European Art (the volume in which Walker’s engraving of Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcadia also appeared). The commentary declared that Watteau can always be distinguished from any imitator, even after a century. “In depicting fashionable grace as opposed to native grace, his works are absolute perfection; ranking above all attempts at competition; utterly defying rivalry; and maintaining pre-eminence, undisputed and even unquestioned, throughout the whole realm of art. . . . No human hand ever used pencil with such magic power, to make the observer actually of, and in, the painted scene. . . . It will surprise few who have studied human nature, to learn that these creations of delicious joys and surpassing beauties, arose out of dreams dreamt in a miserable, unfurnished attic, where ‘the banquet’ was a scanty supply of bread and water” (1).

Born in Valenciennes in 1684, young Antoine Watteau moved to Paris, where he was befriended by the painter Claude Gillot. At the Luxembourg Gallery, he discovered “the great works of Rubens,” which “forced him to seek inspiration from diviner sources than Theatre ornamentalists and painters of fauns and satyrs.” After winning a prize at the Royal Academy in Paris and exhibiting two pictures at the Louvre, he was instructed by the director of the Academy to “Present yourself for admission—you will be received.” Watteau died in poor health at the age of thirty-seven.  “His capricious, sombre, and melancholy disposition formed a singular contrast to the gaiety of his compositions” (Gems, 2).

English admiration of Watteau began with Sir Joshua Reynolds, who acquired several of his paintings and worked assiduously to imitate their subtleties of color and form. Hazlitt was another early advocate, writing of the Fête Champêtre at the Dulwich Gallery that “there is something exceedingly light, agreeable, and characteristic in this artist’s productions. He might also be said to breathe his figures and his flowers on the canvas—so fragile is their texture, so evanescent is his touch. . . . [They] seem to have just sprung out of the ground, or to be the fairy inhabitants of the scene in masquerade. They are the Oreads and Dryads of the Luxembourg!” (Criticisms, 30-31). Young Melville presumably saw the Fȇte Champȇtre so highly admired by Hazlitt during his own visit to the Dulwich Gallery in November 1849.

The 1846 engraving of Watteau’s Fȇte Champȇtre from Melville’s print collection depicts an outdoor pleasure party in which three groups of elegant figures are comfortably spread across a sylvan setting enhanced by classical statues. Each of these groups is self-contained. Each group embodies a different form of amorous entertainment, from the musical courtship on the right, to the intimate conversation near the fountain on the left, to the easy sociality of the large group near the sculpture at the center of the image. Watteau does unite these disparate groups with certain visual motifs—such as the supple eroticism of the back of the neck of the elegant woman in conversation on the left, echoed in the depiction of one young girl seated among those in the center of the image. The painting in an English collection from which Melville’s print was engraved is now thought to be a copy after Watteau’s Gathering near a Fountain with a Statue of Bacchus, 1716, currently known only by the 1727 engraving by Colchin (see Sunderland and Camesasca, cat. 141, Le Bosquet de Bacchus). For a detailed account of how Watteau’s treatment of such scenes differs from predecessors such as Abraham Bosse and contemporaries such as Bernard Picart, see Vidal, especially plates 86, 103, 105, and 106.

Melville’s copy of the Fȇte Champȇtre is an excellent large-scale example of the “new genre” of painting that Watteau had perfected between 1714 and 1717. Watteau’s tender depiction of courtship scenes among imaginary figures in fanciful dress was so striking that the term fȇte galant was invented to describe his personal style. This term was particularly appropriate for those “small easel paintings” in which Watteau features only a few figures “in conversation or music-making in a secluded parkland setting” (Wine, 913). Melville saw at least one such intimate painting by Watteau during his two visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers in December 1849, one month after his visit to the Dulwich Gallery. This painting was identified as A Conversation Piece in the inventory of Rogers’s collection in the 1844 volume of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art (no. 38). In the same year Anna Jameson identified it as A Garden Scene—A Conversation between a Lady and a Cavalier (no. 41). In 1847 the London Art-Union identified the painting as A Conversation between a Lady and a Gentleman, in a Garden Scene and located it in the poet’s drawing room, where Melville would have seen it in 1849 (“The Collection of Samuel Rogers,” p. 83).

Beyond their variations on its title, the above listings by Hazlitt, Jameson, and the Art-Union had given no indication of the visual contents or actual size of this painting by Watteau. The catalog for the estate sale of Rogers’s collection in 1856 listed the painting as A Masquerade; a group of five figures, in masquerade, adding only that Rogers had originally acquired it “from the Earl of Carysfort’s Collection” (Catalogue of the Celebrated Collection, p. 49). After the 1856 sale, Watteau’s depiction of this conversation piece featuring a lady and a gentleman in masquerade in a garden scene had passed into a sequence of private collections in England and America for more than a century—until being acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1959. On the website of the New York Met today we can finally see the imagery of the painting that Melville saw in 1849 (fig. 1).

CAT 158 fig 1 Watteau The Cascade New York Met from Rogers Collection.jpeg

Figure 1. Copy after Antoine Watteau. The Cascade, oil on wood panel, 8 ½ inches in diameter. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Formerly in the collection of Samuel Rogers.

The above painting on a wood panel in a circular format is only 8 ½ inches in diameter (see “The Cascade”). Even so, we feel the presence of the figures in the foreground who are serenaded by a musician sitting in front of another couple conversing behind him. The yearning evident in the young courtier’s tilted head, angled arm, and splayed feet is here answered only by the averted face and blank expression of the young woman whose entire body beneath the neckline is entirely hidden by the silken beauty of her dress. 

The New York website allows us to see the small painting the Melville would have seen in London in 1849, but the provenance it provides does not acknowledge Rogers’s ownership of the work, instead skipping directly from the sale from the Earl of Carysfort’s collection to an owner subsequent to Rogers. This gap in the history of the painting was filled in by the 2021 entry for “La Cascade (copy 2)” on the Watteau Abecedario website. This site’s extremely informative history of multiple copies that have been made from various manifestations of Watteau’s original painting in a rectangular format (now it a private collection in Switzerland) identifies Samuel Rogers as having purchased the small circular painting now in New York directly from the Earl of Carysfort (as had the 1856 Rogers’s sale catalog). We can therefore be assured that seeing this small, evocative painting in the company of Samuel Rogers would have been part of young Melville’s initiation into the world of Watteau in 1849.

The Abecedario site notes that the small painting from Rogers’s collection now known as The Cascade at the New York Met had previously been known as A Fȇte Champȇtre, A Masquerade, and A Musical Conversation. Any of those titles would be better for the small painting now in New York because “The Cascade” refers to a fountain that is prominent on the right side of Watteau’s original rectangular painting but is entirely absent from the small circular version that had belonged to Rogers. The circular painting from the Rogers collection is now known to be a copy by an unknown artist, but throughout the eighteenth, the nineteenth, and  most of the twentieth century it was thought to be an original painting by Watteau (“La Cascade (copy 2)).”

We do not know when Melville acquired his copy of Watteau’s Fȇte Champȇtre that was published in London as the frontispiece of the Gems of Art in 1846. Whenever he acquired it, it would have been a handy companion when he was writing “After the Pleasure Party,” the poem he published shortly before his death in 1891. Lightfoot’s engraving depicts exactly the kind of pleasure party to which Melville alludes in the poem. Rather than being a celebration of the kind of amorous courtship and conversation depicted in the print, however, Melville’s poem dramatizes the interior struggle within Urania after having attended a pleasure party which awakened her to pleasures she had missed. It is in exactly such a setting as Watteau has painted—“When after lunch and sallies gay, / Like the Decameron folk we lay / In sylvan groups”—that Urania breaks off her painful memories from the pleasure party itself and plunges into the “starlit” vigil about the human psyche in which “Few matching halves here meet and mate.” Her inner thoughts and feelings are all the more excruciating after having been part of a “sylvan group” for whom amorous pleasure is the name of the game (NN PP 261-62).

Watteau’s pleasure party in Melville’s copy of Fȇte Champȇtre provides the social locus, just as Claude’s Psyche in The Enchanted Castle (CAT 128) provides the inward focus, for that endless day, “Silvered no more,” in which “One knows not if Urania yet / The pleasure-party may forget.” (NN PP 262).