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Watteau was a painter of Flemish descent who became the greatest of the French followers of Rubens.

The original background architecture in this picture was more Italianate in character, whereas the present ringed columns derive from the now destroyed Tuileries Palace, Paris. Constable wrote that the picture “seemed as if painted in honey; so mellow, so tender, so soft, so delicious … be satisfied if you touch but the hem of his garment, for this inscrutable and exquisite thing would vulgarise even Rubens and Paul Veronese."

Details

  • Title: Les Plaisirs du Bal
  • Date: c. 1715-17
  • Physical Dimensions: w652 x h525 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil
  • Work Notes: Engraving by G. Scotin, in reverse, c. 1730-1, when in the Glucq collection. A copy, perhaps by Pater, in the Wallace collection (inv. no. P420).Murray: 'There are about a dozen recorded versions (two by Pater in the 1791 Lebrun sale catalogue), and doubts had been expressed about the autograph quality of 156 until the X-rays revealed the changes in the course of execution. One version, attributed to Pater, is Wallace Collection 420. A passage in Caylus's Life of Watteau (1748) suggests that Watteau himself made a replica for Boyer de Bandol'.Burton Fredericksen writes (2 Feb. 2003): 'It appears inthe auction held by the younger Lebrun (Joseph-Alexandre Lebrun) on Nov.15 ff.,1791, as lot 94, and the entry repeats with slight variations the catalogueentry in the sale held in April of the same year. It may have been the propertyof the J.A. Lebrun at this second sale rather than his older brother J.B.P.Lebrun - that is still to be determined. But the buyer this time was (accordingto Lebrun's own catalogue in Geneva) J.B.P. Lebrun again.'
  • Work Nationality: French
  • Support: Canvas
  • Provenance: Claude Glucq, Conseiller du Parlement (who had bought Watteau's Enseigne de Gersaint a few weeks after the artist's death) by 1731; Louis Pasquier by 1752, and bequethed by him to V. de Gournay in 1754; Jean de Jullienne bef. 1756; Paris, Montullé sale, 22 Dec. 1783, lot 55; Paris, Vaudreuil sale, 26 Nov. 1787, lot 60. Sold privately; Montesquiou in 1788; Paris, (either J.-A. or J.B.P., but probably the latter) Lebrun sale, 11ff. Apr. 1791, lot 197; Paris, (either J.-A. or J.B.P., but probably the latter) Lebrun sale, 15ff. Nov. 1791, lot 94; Unsold and passed to London, Noel Desenfans; Sir Abraham Hume in 1792, who exchanged it with Desenfans for another picture; again exchanged with Hume, 1797; London, Noel Desenfans, 1797-1807: London, Skinner and Dyke, Desenfans sale, 18 Mar. 1802, lot 173 ('Watteaux-Le Bal Champetre'. Descriptive Catalogue no. 68: 'This picture is known by the name of Le Bal de Watteaux, after an engraving which is in the port folio of every print collector. On a beautiful spot embellished with trees and a water spout, a superb structure supported by pillars, and ornamented with marble statues is divided into arches, opening to an extensive view; in the centre, between four columns, a splendid buffet is covered with fruits and wines, and decorated with silver vases. About seventy figures are assembled on the lawn, comprizing ladies, gentlemen, musicians and children. The dancers are in the first division on the right, and the musicians are ranged on an amphitheatre, in the opposite; more retired and surrounding the refreshments, are the rest of the company, some standing, and others seated'). Handwritten note in copy of catalogue at The Hague, RKD: '21 1/2' [i.e. 2 x 1 1/2]. Bt Elliott for £65.2 (bt in); 1804 Insurance List, no. 46 ('A Ball'. £200); London, Sir Francis Bourgeois, 1807-1811; Bourgeois Bequest, 1811.
  • Further Information: "This is a scene of wish-fulfilment - a warm dusk in the marble-vaulted summer-house of an Italian garden. There is music from a rustic band, dancing in fancy-dress, romance, flirtation and chat. Watteau provides a glimpse of Earthly Paradise for the urbane. To the eighteenth-century viewer this scene would have appeared far more informal than it does to us. The outdoor setting, the mix of high and low life, the confusion of dressing up and dressing down; all these would have seemed a daring relaxation of etiquette. After the stuffiness of the Court of Versailles, this scene would have conveyed the idea of liberty. As the masked revellers sing in a similar scene from Mozart's 'Don Giovanni': 'Viva la Libertå.' What makes the mood so vivid is Watteau's ability to suggest atmosphere, as if he is not just painting the figures, tress and columns, but also the light falling on them and the air surrounding them. He also understands the effect of a suggestive use of the paint brush. Much of the detail is sharp and sparklingly precise, but there are areas, particularly in the distance, where the touches become mysterious and open-ended to convey a confusion of leaves, sky and distant hills, seen through the falling waters of the fountain. John Constable thought this painting seemed to have been 'painted in honey: so mellow, so tender, so soft and so delicious'. Possibly painted for François II de Boyer de Bandol, President of the 'Parliament de Provence' (for the involved later provenance, see Washington/Paris/Berlin). Rosenberg proposes a date of 1716-17. There are numerous related drawings, of which one - used for the young servant slightly to the right of centre - is taken from Veronese's Christ and the Centurion in the Prado. The X-ray shows a more ambitious architectural setting, which Watteau replaced with the banded columns (which recall the Luxembourg Palace in Paris) and a more extensive view of the park. The composition was extensively copied (an example by Pater is in the Wallace Collection)."
  • Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau
  • Acquisition Method: Bourgeois, Sir Peter Francis (Bequest, 1811)

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