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Fête Champêtre

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(noun) - A term used to describe the depiction of figures enjoying pleasures in an open-air setting. The mood is frequently one of reverie, the figures appearing to be affected by the beauty of the pastoral landscape and, often, by music. Women, generally unclothed or partly clothed in early examples, may be nymphs, muses or general personifications of love; men, usually clothed, are often shepherds or courtiers and are shown under love's spell, attempting to woo their partners. The theme can first be identified in 16th-century Italian art, notably in Venice in the paintings of Giorgione and Titian, although the term fête champêtre was not applied at the time. Its development can be traced through to the 18th century when a variant, known as the fête galante (Fr.: 'courtship party'), practiced principally by French artists (notably Antoine Watteau, Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater), gained popularity as a genre. Subsequently, from the early 19th century the term fête champêtre was increasingly applied to the earlier Italian works and to the theme as a whole.

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Giorgione and Titian were the most skilled in capturing a mood of creative union between the Classical and contemporary worlds. Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (c. 1523–5; Madrid, Prado), based on an event described in the Imagines, is a more active and boisterous version of the fête champêtre. Characteristically, nude and clothed figures intermingle; there is stress on the relaxing pleasures of music, dance, drink and the immersion in a beautiful landscape; and—most typical of the fête champêtre—the pagan world becomes tangible. Other Italian practitioners of the fête champêtre and its allegorical variations in the 16th century include Lorenzo Lotto, Dosso Dossi (e.g. the Three Ages of Man, c. 1518–20; New York, Met.) and Palma Vecchio, to whom is attributed A Concert (c. 1515–20; England, priv. col.; see Rylands, p. 128).

In the 17th century the fête champêtre was given a more direct treatment, notably through the depiction of festive occasions. The theme was taken up by several northern European painters, primarily Rubens. No longer reliant on Classical allegory, the fête champêtre was altered to reflect the manners and morals of the privileged classes. The pursuit of love, accompanied by music, continued to be important, although figures are usually clothed and settings are more closely identifiable, often as country estates or more formal, urban gardens. The gallant poems of courtship by such English Cavalier poets as Robert Herrick and such French poets as Tristan l’Hermite were influential. Scenes often depict fully fledged banqueting-parties or hunting-parties, accompanied by a suite of musicians rather than one or two lute- or flute-players. Space and figures are more animated, the lighting more dramatic and colours more resonant, in keeping with the Baroque style. The identities of figures, as well as their relationships with one another, are less ambiguous, freeing the images somewhat from their symbolic context. The medieval theme of the ‘garden of love’ was revived and updated for 17th-century tastes; however, there was also an interest in some of the more erotic myths painted by Renaissance artists and translated from the Greek or Latin by Renaissance writers.

Rubens’s best-known work in this genre is the Garden of Love (c. 1634; Madrid, Prado), the title of which—typical of fêtes champêtres—was given only later (in this case, in the 18th century). The figures dominate the landscape, and the fête champêtre theme is less easily placed in an idyllic Arcadia. Even in Rustic Couple Embracing (Munich, Alte Pin.) and Flemish Kermesse (1635–8; Paris, Louvre), earthier depictions of the theme, the emphasis appears to be on a more immediate sensual gratification; in the latter painting, Rubens took a typical Flemish country dance and fashioned it into a slightly less civilized version of the Garden of Love. Paintings of groups enjoying themselves alfresco were popular with buyers in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 17th century, often as relaxing alternatives to the more intellectually taxing paintings of historical and religious themes. Besides Rubens, other northern European artists who produced versions of the fête champêtre, although in a less animated way, include David Vinckboons (e.g. Merry Company in the Open Air, 1610; Vienna, Akad. Bild. Kst.), Louis de Caulery (fl 1594–1620) (e.g. Banquet in the Park; Poznań, N. Mus.) and the engraver Abraham Bosse (e.g. Springtime; Paris, Bib. N., Cab. Est.).

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