The Eighteenth Century at Petit Palais Back

François Boucher is said to have considered the natural world ‘too green’. His pink and white nymphs, wide-eyed, pert thighed and scantily dressed, remain for many the defining image of the French ancien règime. For the most part commissions for private hôtels and exclusive apartments, including those of Boucher’s most famous patron, Madame de Pompadour, the king’s maîtresse-en-titre, they seem to speak of a world that was all rococo swirls and aristocratic decadence in powdery pastels. That is, until it was swept away with the Revolution, to be replaced with the no-nonsense lines of civic-minded Neo-Classicism.

The Petit Palais’ current exhibition pair, De Watteau à David and La Baroque des Lumières, offers one of the most comprehensive surveys of the French eighteenth-century art world ever staged. Running up to, and just beyond, 1789, the two exhibitions notch up nearly 400 works in total. The pendant was an indispensable part of any rococo interior, and with La Baroque des Lumières focusing on large-scale religious commissions, and De Watteau à David drawn from the Horwitz Collection, these monumental twins work contrapuntally. They contrast public and private, large and small, sacred and profane. Indeed, the pairing recalls the one Jean-Honoré Fragonard presented to the Marquis de Véri in the 1770s: the quiet, Guido Reni-ish Biblical subject, The Adoration of the Shepherds and its libertine twin, The Bolt (both now in the Louvre). As is soon clear, the art world of the French ancien règime contained legions: Fragonard was only the most dramatic example of an artist playing Proteus.

Despite the much broader world it opens up, a centrepiece of De Watteau à David is still one of Boucher’s naked young women. She lounges on her stomach, displaying her legs and buttocks so that (in the words of Casanova, who saw her) ‘the eye could not wish to see more’. Her pink body is delicately delineated on buff paper in sanguine tones. Indeed, if the French eighteenth century, particularly as incarnated by Boucher, is popularly understood to be pink, it is partly because of sanguine’s dominance, sometimes supported by accent tones of black and white (the so-called trois crayons technique). The plethora of examples here shows the full range of its possibilities. While Boucher uses it to indicate the warmth of naked, nubile flesh, Carl Van Loo’s ‘fantasy figure’ holding a sword (1748) is draped in the sinuous red folds of an ‘Oriental’ costume, part of the mid-eighteenth-century vogue for all things Eastern.

These works and others here demonstrate a live awareness of the undisputed master of the trois crayons, Jean-Antoine Watteau. His early death in 1721 did nothing to dampen his later influence; hence his proud placement in the title of this exhibition. Here, a trois crayons drawing of a young woman by Watteau’s mentor, Charles de la Fosse is exhibited alongside Watteau’s own Standing Actor’. This in turn juts up against two delicious red-toned works by Claude Gillot, the painter of the theatre who became Watteau’s teacher. The juxtaposition places the younger artist firmly in his professional context. Indeed, though he later became well known for his painted fêtes galantes, many of the works in this section of the exhibition hint at the origin of Watteau and others in decorative work. François Desportes’ nearby pair of hunting scenes were intended primarily as overdoors, and the swirls of Jacques de Lajoüe’s Fountain of Amphitrite (c.1740) clearly originate in the interior ‘arabesque’, elaborate wall-painting schemes for private hôtels.

The combination of ‘gallantry’ and theatricality established here runs through the later eighteenth century. Jean-François de Troy’s sketchy Scène théâtrale of 1742-5, combines the two explicitly, and Boucher’s Le Repos des fermiers (c.1732) retains something of Watteau’s idyllic pastoral atmosphere in its depiction of pink-cheeked peasants. Watteau himself continued to influence French artworks as late as the nineteenth century. Louis-Léopold Boilly’s Rendez-vous d’amour (1800-10) borrows its central figure directly from the earlier painter’s Les Deux Cousines (now in the Louvre): a young woman stands with her back to us, and her shimmering dress offers a tonal contrast to the lush garden in which she and her companions converse.

However, by this point, the French art world had ceded dominance to the exhibition’s other bookend, Jacques-Louis David, the Revolutionary Neo-Classical. He is said to have had his students throw pellets of bread at Watteau’s paintings in the Louvre. The trajectory illustrated here is thereby one of an increasing interest in history painting in the later eighteenth century, as well as in the bourgeois genre scene—paintings of everyday life with an implicit moral message—encapsulated by (among others) Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Reacting against the so-called ‘petite manière’ of earlier in the century, the French Academy had by this point decided to spearhead a redevelopment in artistic techniques. Along with an increased emphasis on drawing the nude, this included a regular prize for ‘la tête d’expression’, as part of which students were rewarded for the best representation of a ‘passion’ or emotion. It was a project that looked back to Charles Le Brun’s aesthetic ‘systematisation’ of facial expressions during the reign of Louis XIV, an early harbinger of the ‘Enlightenment’ drive to order and categorise.

Upstairs, La Baroque des Lumières explores the relationship between this kind of Enlightenment rationalism and the older legacy of the religious baroque. Its basis in a private collection makes De Watteau à David in many ways a meditation on the cabinet picture, drawing or sketch, and its meanings—though the exhibition also opens with some larger-format portraits including Nicolas de Largillière’s spectacular Louis-Margeurite Bertin de Vaugien (1735). La Baroque des Lumières highlights, conversely, that many eighteenth-century painters also strategically sought commissions for Paris’ ever-expanding cohort of churches, recognising that their altars could be both object of religious devotion and cost-effective square footage for the promotion of their talents. Jean-Francois de Troy, Carle Van Loo and François Lemoine (among others) make appearances in both exhibitions. Lemoine’s Saint John Preaching in the Desert, intended for the church of Saint-Eustache (1726) and a highlight here, depicts the saint as a flaxen-haired boy with the long limbs of a burgeoning adolescent awkwardness. They form an undulating S-curve across the canvas, from the dark browns and blacks of the earth to the pastel-blue sky behind, fusing the language of the early rococo with the muscular power of Mannerism.

Though they may appear paradoxical, in fact these modes of representation share common interests. Chief among them was the challenge of the decorative, and of responding to the demands of a specific site. Indeed, the ludic quality of the rococo, honed in the arabesque and the overdoor, is surprisingly prominent in this exhibition on religious reformism. When the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés—a French precedent for Britain’s Foundling Hospital—requested a chapel in 1746-70, Charles Joseph Natoire and Paolo Antonio Brunetti duly obliged. The result was an illusionistic scheme covering the whole building’s interior, so that the ceiling seemed to be fallen through and partially open to the sky outside. The chapel itself no longer exists, but La Baroque des Lumières recreates it here, by blowing up contemporary engravings (the sort furnishing the cabinets of private collectors) and mounting them on the walls of an ante-room. Nearby, a painting by Nicolas Lépicié gives an idea of the equally ambitious design imagined by Etienne-Louis Boullée for the Église Saint-Roch’s Chapel of the Calvary (c.1754). The visitor to Boullée’s construction (which still stands) is to be tricked into believing they see a barren mountain landscape, with the Virgin Mary praying to a crucified Christ on the top of it. Of course, the drive to place the viewer physically in the Biblical moment dates back to Medieval images of the suffering Christ, emphasising blood and gore the better to communicate the experience of pain. However, these projects seem to draw more directly from the increasingly elaborate devices of contemporaneous theatre, here marshalled in the service of making the church a truly ‘immersive’ experience.

Like De Watteau à David, La Baroque des Lumières is visually magnificent. It is dominated for the most part by large-format altarpieces, almost all of them newly restored for this exhibition. Visitors may struggle with the more syrupy saints in pastel pinks, such as Noël Hallé’s Christ and the Children (1775), with its wide-eyed infants and chocolate-box hues. But its parting shot, David’s early Christ on the Cross (1782), intended for the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent in Mâcon is a world away from such rococo interpretations of Biblical scenes. A monumental Christ dominates the canvas, boldly lit in contrast to a dark blue landscape beyond. Unsettling architectural forms emerge from this gloom: a pyramid, a circus, a triumphal column. Here are all the lessons of the Enlightenment theatre, marshalled on the cusp of a new world.

La Baroque des Lumières is at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts dans la Ville de Paris from 21st March to 16th July 2017. De Watteau à David runs from 21st March to 9th July.