As a young man, Watteau came to Paris from Valenciennes, a Flemish town that had recently come under French rule. In the French capital he painted decorative and theatrical subjects, and soon made his mark as the inventor of the fête galante, in which fashionable figures engaged in the rituals of love in a parkland setting. Watteau continued to paint figures in theatrical dress throughout his short life. The little boy seated at the center of the Kimbell painting shares something of the inscrutable, poignant aspect of his grown-up counterpart in Watteau’s celebrated Pierrot (called Gilles) in the Louvre. He is dressed in the cream costume with white ruff, shoes with satin bows, and brimmed hat that was worn by Pierrot, the tragicomic clown of the commedia dell’arte. The boy’s unfocused gaze contrasts with the animated figures around him—who may all be girls, although little boys also wore dresses during this period. Pierrot avoids the steady stare of the little girl with one arm akimbo who grips Harlequin’s bat, known as a slapstick. Resting on the ground behind her is a ribboned tambourine, an instrument that connotes love and folly.
The title derives from the verses accompanying Nicolas Tardieu’s engraving of the painting, published some years after Watteau’s death, which begins “Happy Age! Golden Age, where without tribulation / The heart knows to surrender to innocent pleasures.”