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Sitting Couple, by Jean-Antoine Watteau

Sitting Couple, by Jean-Antoine Watteau

“Galant” Style

empfindsamer Styl
the classical era

Traditionally, the “galant” style has been associated with music. It was the music composed by Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, two of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s (31 March 1685 – 28 July 1750) sons.

In music, “galant” aesthetics called for a freer style than the contrapuntal (interwoven lines) music of the Baroque era. The “galant” style emphasizes melody expressed in shorter phrases. Empfindsamkeit and empfindsamer Styl are terms used to describe “galant” music, or sentimental music. Composers using the “galant” style are Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann BachJohann Joachim Quantz and Jiří Antonín Benda.[i] 

However, other composers could be added to this list. André Campra (4 December 1660 – 29 June 1744 in Versailles) composed L’Europe galante (1697), an opera with four “entrées” (called acts in the theatre) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764), is the composer of Les Indes galantes, an opéra-ballet, an opera-ballet we have already discussed.

Empfindsamkeit culminated in the “classical era.” Its most prominent composers are Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. However, the classical era comprises a larger number of composers. Moreover the word “classical” is also used to differentiate “classical” music, jazz or other musical forms, from popular music.

Gallant Aesthetics in Literature

the “Mercure galant”
l’honnête homme
la Préciosité

Although Empfindsamkeit, or the “galant” style, is associated with music, the term “galant” permeated the literary and journalistic world at an early date. It was used before Watteau’s Fêtes galantes and is inextricably linked with the commedia dell’arte in both Watteau’s Fêtes galantes and Paul Verlaine‘s 1869 collection of poems entitled Fêtes galantes.

Yet, the term “galant,” later spelled “gallant,” was used in France during the seventeenth century. In 1672, journalist Jean Donneau de Visé (1638 – 8 July 1710) founded Le Mercure galant, a literary gazette that had been called the Mercure françoys, when it was first published, in 1611. Le Mercure galant is now owned by the Éditions Gallimard.

Moreover, Précieux and Précieuses proned “galanterie.” At one point, Préciosité advocated platonic love which was unrealistic. In 1659, Molière produced his successful one-act Précieuses ridicules.

When Gorgibus, the heavy bourgeois father of the play, informs his niece Cathos and daughter Magdelon that he plans for them to marry the fine young men who have just visited but have been sent away, Cathos explains that the very thought of sleeping next to a truly naked man is insufferable:

Comment est-ce qu’on peut souffrir la pensée de coucher contre un homme vraiment nu ?” (sc. 5)
(How can one suffer the thought of sleeping next to a truly naked man?)

Cathos and Magdelon want to be courted according to the rules of Mademoiselle de Scudéry‘s Carte du Tendre (also called “de” Tendre). No woman would mind spending a little time in the locality called Petits Soins (tender, loving care). However, although platonic love constitutes effective birth control, couples seldom, if ever, choose celibacy.

Moreover, “galanterie” was expected of l’honnête homme and Préciosité (FR) demanded gallant behaviour and expression of sentiments.

“… précieuses such as Madeleine de Scudéry were responsible for introducing a new subtlety into the language, establishing new standards of delicacy in matters of taste, and propagating advanced ideas about the equality of the sexes in marriage. Their aims thus ran parallel to those of the honnêtes gens, and the ideal of the educated, emancipated woman was the female counterpart of the masculine ideal defined above.”[ii]

As well, although the Comédie italienne, or Comédie-Italienne, was banished from France in 1697 because the Fausse-Prude, a play, was considered an offence to Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s second wife, galanterie, no sooner did Louis XIV die, in 1715, than the Italian actors were invited back to France. Italian comedy is part of galanterie. The Fêtes champêtres were a form of entertainment and one made believe one had escaped various limitations.

The Rehabilitation of Sentiment

comédie larmoyante (tearful comedy) (Nivelle de la Chaussée)
Bourgeois drama (Denis Diderot and Beaumarchais) 
reason vs sentiment 

We know, moreover, that Denis Diderot (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (24 January 1732 – 18 May 1799) attempted to create a bourgeois drama, thereby making room for the expression of sentiment. Diderot’s Fils naturel (1757) and Beaumarchais’ The Guilty Mother (1792) are examples of bourgeois drama which followed Nivelle de la Chaussée‘s (14 Feb 1692 – 14 May 1754) comédie larmoyante (tearful comedy).

Diderot wrote a treatise on his Fils naturel (1771) entitled Entretiens sur le Fils Naturel, ou les Épreuves de la vertu (1771), reminiscent of Samuel Richardson‘s Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). In 1767, Beaumarchais’ Essai sur le genre dramatique sérieux (online BnF; FR) also militated in favour of the expression of sentiment. However Diderot and, to a lesser extent, Beaumarchais were opposing sentiment to reason and their plays were also moralistic. I should note moreover that Diderot was influenced by Laurence Sterne‘s (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768) novels, both The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1762 – 1767) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), and that he took an interest in Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury‘s 1699 Inquiry concerning Virtue (L’Essai sur le mérite et la vertu), part of which he translated into French.

The above may apply to the long debate that opposed reason and sentiment (instinct), and began with the publication of René Descartes’ Discours de la Méthodein 1637. But if galanterie is to be linked to the literature of seventeenth-century France, we must re-enter the Salons and revisit both préciosité (its moderate form) and honnêteté.

Moderation is “a,” if not “the” keyword in seventeenth-century ethics and aesthetics. In fact, as Philinte says in Molière’s Misanthrope, too much sincerity could be unacceptable, not only at court but elsewhere. Should one tell a lady that she put too much powder (white; Philinte to Alceste, Act I, Sc. i) or too many “mouches” (a black dot, not a fly) on her face? Molière was an honnête homme.

The Serenader, by Watteau

The Serenader, by Watteau

Two Dancers

Two Dancers (see Images, below)

The Fête Galante

Fêtes champêtres, le cadeau

There were real Fêtes champêtres. Many took place at Versailles. At times, an orchestra played, hidden behind trees. But the setting was intimate and it allowed badinerie (light conversation), a term used in music, as well as playful and refined flirtation, and a little silliness: “folletées.” Fêtes champêtres were a form of garden party and one could play shepherds and shepherdesses. This July, a few weeks ago, there was an exhibition, in France, of the art of Watteau, Pater, Lancret, Fragonard and Boucher. The link to the website is De Watteau à Fragonard (just click).

As you know, in the Salons, the subject placed under scrutiny was love and the main activity of salonniers and salonnières was literature. They wrote. Sometimes, one was given rhymed ends that had to be filled in. These were called “bouts-rimés” and demanded an excellent command of the French language and considerable ingenuity.

Our salonniers and salonnières wrote books, from the somewhat frivolous, but exquisite, Guirlande de Julie to Madeleine de Scudéry’s Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649 – 1653) and Clélie, histoire romaine (1654 – 1660). Moreover, the fairy tale as we know it is a product of the Salons of the second half of the seventeenth century. However, the fairy tale was first developed in Italy from oral tales (Straparola and Basile). They were refined by Charles Perrault, in the manner La Fontaine recreated Æsop, but not as brilliantly as La Fontaine retold Æsop.

L'Embarquement pour Cythère, Jean-Antoine Watteau

L’Embarquement pour Cythère, by Watteau, 1717, Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Embarkation for Cythere, by Jean-Antoine Watteau

Pilgrimage to Cythera, by Watteau, 1718, Charlottenburg (Berlin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jean-Antoine Watteau

Jean-Antoine Watteau‘s (1694 – 1721) Fêtes galantes, bring to mind courtly love, the Roman de la Rose (c. 1230 – 1275), countless love poems, and the love songs (la chanson) of troubadours (the south of France), trouvères (the north of France), and minnesinger (German language), etc. Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1717), L’Embarquement pour Cythère, and Pilgrimage to Cythera (1718), the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love, epitomizes the Fête galanteL’Embarquement is a sensual, yet sensitive treatment of love. These are feasts (fêtes) and the destination is an unattainable Cythera, a Greek island that is both real and mythic. Interestingly, Watteau’s paintings are considered genre paintings, paintings depicting daily activities.

According to the Glossary of the National Gallery of Art in London,

“Fête galante is a French term used to describe a type of painting which first came to prominence with Antoine Watteau [pronounced Vateau], whose reception piece at the Academy of 1717, ‘The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera’, was described as representing ‘une fête galante’.

Fêtes galantes, usually small in scale, show groups of elegantly attired men and women, most often placed in a parkland setting and engaged in decorously amorous play.

Precedents for this type of picture can be found in the work of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists but Watteau’s mix of reality and fantasy in costume and setting, and the open-endedness of his subject matter, were original to him. Pater, Lancret and many other artists followed Watteau in producing fêtes galantes, but did not imbue their paintings with the subtle depiction of human emotion he achieved.

Prix de Rome

In 1709, Watteau attempted to obtain the prestigious Prix de Rome, but came second. Three years later, he was again a candidate, but rather than being sent to Rome, he was appointed to the Académie as a painter of “fêtes galantes.” It seems he was a one-person Académie:

“In 1712 Watteau tried once more to go to Italy. He did not succeed, but he was accepted by the Académie as a painter of fêtes galantes—outdoor entertainments in which the courtiers often dressed in rural costumes—for his presentation of a scene depicting actors in a garden.”[iii]

As noted above, the “Embarquement pour Cythère” was Watteau’s “reception piece.” The 1717 version of The Pilgrimage to Cythera could be Watteau’s second version, but I have not found a third Embarquement, mentioned in Britannica.

Claude Gillot

Watteau had been a student of Claude Gillot and had lived at his home. That was his introduction to the commedia dell’arte. Gillot was a set designer.

“Watteau’s art exemplifies the profound influence of the theatre as a motif of inspiration on the painting of the 18th century. The strongest influence on his work was exercised not by solemn tragedy but by the most ephemeral theatrical forms. One major influence was the commedia dell’arte, in which words count significantly less than gestures, a theatre linked to the actor, who brings his own routines with him.”[iv]

Watteau suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 37.

Detail of Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground by Jean-Antoine Watteau c1717-18. Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum, London

Detail of Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground by Jean-Antoine Watteau c. 1717-18. Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum, London

Paul Verlaine

Where literature is concerned, in 1869, French poet Paul Verlaine (30 March 1844 – 8 January 1896) published a collection of “fin de siècle” poems, entitled Fêtes galantes. These were an inspiration to “Art Déco” artists such as Claude Barbier, whose art we have explored.

Many of Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes poems contain allusions to the commedia dell’arte and allusions to Watteau and the Venetian carnival or Fêtes vénitiennes. Verlaine’s collection of poems may be read online by clicking on Fêtes galantes FR or Fêtes galantes FR (a reading). Translations into English are also available online. Here is one link, Fêtes galantes, but it includes poems that are not part of the 1869 collection. I have also found a Gutenberg Project English translation of poems by Verlaine [EBook #8426]. It starts with a selection from Fêtes galantes.

Composers have also set Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes to music, from Debussy, Fauré, Honegger, Poulenc, Ravel, Vuillermoz to Reynaldo Hahn (9 August 1874 – 28 January 1947). Karina Gauvin and Marc-André Hamelin have released a record entitled Fête galante. It’s perfect, but I’m past my birthday.


Watteau had created a new style that was named: fête galante and became an Académie. What he depicted is our need to escape reality from time to time. Fantasy is an element that helps us cope with the disappointments confronting us.

As for Verlaine’s collection of poems entitled Fêtes galantes, it explores the same themes as Watteau: the commedia dell’arte, love. Moreover, the style is also very much the same as Watteau: ethereal, evanescent, nostalgic, and forever new. Verlaine’s poems are an enchantment.

Wishing you a lovely weekend.


Sources and Resources


I have shown oils and a few of Watteau’s chalk drawings. These demonstrate controlled spontaneity.

  1. The Serenader, c. 1715 (oil; Chantilly)
  2. Dancers (chalk) http://richardzrehen.blogspot.ca/2009/07/watteau.html
  3. Seated Woman (chalk; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)
  4. Three Studies of a Lady with a Hat, c. 1715 (chalk; Bruxelles)


[i] “empfindsamer Stil.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Jul. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/186088/empfindsamer-Stil>.

[ii] “French literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 31 Jul. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/219228/French-literature>.

[iii] “Antoine Watteau.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Jul. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/637696>.

[iv] “Antoine Watteau.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 31 Jul. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/637696/Antoine-Watteau>.


“Si mes vers avaient des ailes” & “À Chloris”
Victor Hugo & Théophile de Viau
Reynaldo Hahn
Karina Gauvin & Marc-André Hamelin 
© Micheline Walker
1 August 2014