Fête champêtre with a dancing couple is a graceful, lively example of Lancret’s hugely popular fêtes galantes. Pioneered as a genre by his one-time friend and mentor Antoine Watteau, these arcadian visions of love had their roots in seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish merry-making scenes, but were characterised by the nuanced interactions of elegantly dressed figures in harmonious landscapes, hovering between the pastoral and the theatrical.
Watteau’s influence on the younger artist is still very much in evidence in the present work, which dates to the first half of the 1720s. Lancret draws his inspiration from Watteau’s Fêtes Vénitiennes of circa 1718 (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland). The seated figure playing the musette de cour and his relationship to the female dancer is an almost direct quotation from the Edinburgh picture, a choice made more interesting by the fact that in Watteau’s painting the musician is a self-portrait. Lancret also chose to include the pipe-player in The dance before a fountain (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum) and Le Moulinet (Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg). The latter picture, of comparable scale and format to the present painting, also dates to the same period of the artist’s life.
As well as taking inspiration from his contemporaries, Lancret often used seventeenth and early-eighteenth century print sources in his paintings. It is highly probable that the figure of the central dancer (whose parallel the artist would go on to elaborate in his portraits of the dancers Mlle. Camargo and Mlle. Sallé) is an interpretation of a print, such as Mademoiselle Subligny dansant a l'Opera, published by J. Mariette in Paris in the early-eighteenth century. Marie-Thérèse de Subligny was one of the first professional female dancers at the Paris Opera in the 1680s and, in her posture, the dancer in pink executes the identical slow, graceful arm gesture, with little movement in the torso as indicated in Mariette’s image. It is telling of Lancret’s real interest in dance and theatre that he has put so much thought into the details of the dancer’s movements.
Though influenced by Watteau earlier in his career, important differences between the two artists’ approach to the fête galante are already in evidence here. Where Watteau can be identified by his silvery hues, Lancret favoured a bolder palette. Executed with characteristically fluid brushstrokes and iridescent highlights, the coral pink of the dancer’s dress, the flashes of orange on the male dancer’s sumptuous slashed-silk suit, the blues, reds and russets of the dining party all strengthen the visual impact of the figural composition. The costume of the male dancer is perhaps the most carefully considered of the group. A preparatory drawing for this figure, held in the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, shows the meticulous attention paid to the details of silken folds, heightened in white to accentuate their shimmer, and the inviting crook of his little figure stretched out to draw his partner into the dance.
There are a further two paintings by Lancret that use the study of the male dancer, La dance champêtre (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen) and the Fête galante mit landlichen Menuett (Potsdam, Palace of Sanssouci), both of which were in the collection of Frederick II of Prussia. As well as enjoying the patronage of foreign royalty, Lancret was a favourite of Louis XV, being commissioned to paint decorations at Versailles, Fontainebleau and the King’s hunting lodge at La Muette. Given the way the present composition is weighted, with the figures almost appearing to tilt towards the viewer, it is likely that it was also conceived of as part of an interior decorative scheme, to be hung as an over-door.