7 Parties From Art History We Would Have Loved to Attend

Scenes of debauchery, revelry and indulgence from across the ages

Since the Roman festival of Bacchus, scenes of drunken revelers, liberal libations and spirited merry-making have often played a central role in the artistic imagination.

What is it about party scenes that has so inspired artists? Is it the desire to photograph or paint people burning the candle at both ends, partaking in scandalous and licentious activities? Or the simple desire to show the joy that is found in people sharing time together?

Here we take a tour through the carnivalesque, the celebratory and the sociable in art to find out what it is that brings us together...

1. Renoir's relaxed revelry

What better way to spend a day than in the warm summer sun, amongst friends, taking a boating trip and sipping a fine wine? In this masterpiece, Pierre-Auguste Renoir manages to distill this atmosphere with a combination of still life, figure and landscape painting. The result? A tightly executed scene of companionship, revelry and relaxation.

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-1881 (Collection: The Phillips Collection)

2. Motley's refined cocktail party

Seated around a table sit five women deep in conversation. They wear cocktail dresses, fascinators and cloche hats and sip their cocktails slowly. Dinner is soon to be served. In the era of Prohibition, each woman takes pleasure as the cool liquid of their drinks slips down their throats.

In what looks like a calm and friendly atmosphere, this party is the epitome of a civil and elegant celebration. However, in contrast to the painting of the monks on the wall behind them, we like to think that as the cocktails continued and the night went on, this party would have taken a lively turn.

Cocktails, Archibald Motley, 1927 (Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

3. Stackpole's elegant soirée

Dorothy Parker once wrote ‘I hate Parties / They bring out the worst in me.’ Whilst parties brought out the worst in her, the fact that famous writer Dorothy Parker and her husband were present at the party in the title of this photograph by Peter Stackpole shows that it must have been a desirable party to attend.

Greenwich Village Party, Peter Stackpole, 1938 (Collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

4. Koson's wine and poetry party

From a set of five works, each scroll depicts an ancient Japanese imperial court ritual (Gosseku) which had evolved from Chinese models during the Nara (710–794) and Heian (794–1185) periods. This particular painting made on silk displays the custom of courtiers sending wine down the stream and reciting pages of poetry. Next time you're by a river it's worth waiting downstream to see what might come your way!

Detail from A Ceremonial Poetry Party in March, Ikeda Koson, ca. 1830 (Collection: Freer and Sackler Galleries)

5. Couture's carnival of booze and sex

The large proportions of this painting by French painter Thomas Couture are nothing if not akin to the grandiose decadence and debauchery taking place in this party scene. As a history painting, the work hints at Greek and Renaissance traditions in order to offer a moral message to the viewer. This message is embodied by the varying states of the revelers within the painting: from drunken dancers and passionate lovers, to young men and women post-celebration, sat in a distracted state of ecstasy and desolation.

Romans during the Decadence, Thomas Couture, 1847 (Collection: Musee d’Orsay)

6. Andrews' high society bash

Collapsing the indoor and outdoor party scenes within these three panels provides an overwhelming and exciting visual scene in Michael Andrew’s painting. As the painting plays out across this large canvas, unknown figures stand, sit and crawl around the party. This gives a collage-like aesthetic in line with Andrew’s method of cutting figures from magazines and photographs, in order to re-size, abstract and re-model them within this impressive landscape of music, dance and passion.

All night long, Michael Andrews, 1963-64 (Collection: National Gallery of Victoria)

7. Jordaens' debauched feast

Under the tutelage of Rubens, Jordaens managed to combine an overwhelming intricate and detailed composition with a righteous moral message. In a similar way to Couture’s scene of bacchanalia, Jordaens shows us the highs of drinking amongst friends and loved ones, alongside the lows of over-indulgence in the left hand corner.

The Feast of the Bean King, Jacob Jordaens, 1640-1645 (Collection: The Kunsthistorisches Museum)

What’s your favorite party scene from art history?

Story by Bryony White
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