The French 18th Century is characterized by an increasing awareness of nature and the beauties of the countryside. Writers such as the pastoral poet Racan and the novelist d'Urfé had put emphasis on the themes of peace and rural solitude and a persistent strain of nostalgia for the pastoral idyll became common amongst 'those opposites of rural simplicity, people of fashion and rank' (see H. Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, Strawberry Hill, 1762-1771, p. 137). Thus emerged the fêtes galantes genre, the depiction of figures enjoying pleasures in an open-air setting.
A hedonistic but discriminating sense of pleasure existed in high society and it was believed that the pleasure given by works of art was a worthwhile pursuit, both for its sake and as the means to moral and spiritual greatness. The mood in these fêtes galantes is frequently one of reverie, the figures appearing to be affected by the beauty of the pastoral landscape and, often, music. This is an embodiment of the ideals and fantasies of the more refined members of society for whom love and pleasure were serious pursuits in a leisured civilization.
The genre was initiated by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Nicolas Lancret, born in Paris in 1690, was virtually consecrated Watteau's official successor when in 1719 he was reçu into the Académie Royale as peintre de fêtes galantes, a category that had been created two years earlier especially for Watteau. Lancret was a prolific artist. His paintings graced the homes of noble families across Europe during his lifetime, and his prints remained popular long after his death in 1743. He was also consistently under royal patronage, Louis XV commissioned him works for most of the Crown residences (Versailles, Fontainebleau and La Muette) and Frederick the Great of Prussia had no less than twenty-six of Lancret's paintings at the Château of Sans-Souci.
The present fête galante is a typical example of the genre Lancret helped to establish as a legitimate endeavor in French painting. In a lush wooded landscape, a standing lady surrounded by five musicians (three men and two women) interacts with Pulcinella, one of the stock characters of the Commedia dell'arte. Firmly established in France since the second half of the 17th Century and exerting a dominant influence both on art and theatre the Commedia dell'arte was well known and loved by Lancret thanks to Claude Gillot (1673-1722), his master from 1712-1713, who painted many scenes of Italian comedians.
More than just including theatrical figures in a fête galante as if they had just strolled naturally into the party, Lancret integrates Pulcinello into the action of the scene as he wooes the lady. In this manner, under fancy costumes and exaggerated types, the 'comedy' is a thoroughly human one, nudging the spectator into awareness of real truths about human behaviour. The narrative content and humorous anecdotal quality of Lancret's work are paramount and his narrative technique is characterized by the broad gestures, robust faces and vivid expressions of the delicately modelled figures frequently situated close to the picture plane. Lancret was also very masterful with color, his color combinations, in this case brilliant pinks and blues juxtaposed with more earthy tones, are always striking and evocative of contemporary fashion.
'Lancret's work, charming and accurate, reflecting the spirit and manners of our 18th Century' has often been considered the symbol 'of one of the most seductive expressions of French art' (see G. Wildenstein, Lancret, Paris, 1924, p. 37).