Painted in Honey

Jean-Antoine Watteau – Les Plaisirs du Bal

Following the death of the Louis XIV of France (Le Roi-Soleil – The Sun King) aristocracy abandoned the grandeur of Versailles for the intimacy of the townhouses of Paris. In this more relaxed environment, the aristocratic revellers could flirt and play, and act out scenes of the commedia dell’arte. In its essence commedia dell’arte creates an opportunity to convey messages through satire or innuendo. Originating from Venice, masks are used in commedia dell’arte, which obscures the face, and therefore portrays a “put on” emotion.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Plaisirs du Bal, c. 1717
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Jean-Antoine Watteau’s series of paintings with the collective title Fêtes Galantes portray garden parties of the nobility in relaxed attire and court musicians and entertainers in their costumes causing the class lines to be obscured. Chiaroscuro (light and dark) techniques and contrast create a balance throughout these paintings, which balances the various opposites. This is perhaps Watteau’s aim to keep everyone happy in the opposing camps of his employment: an aristocratic clientele and the government-appointed Académie-des-Beaux-Arts. 

In Les Plaisirs du Bal (pictured above) various contrasts are delicately balanced: the marble renaissance villa as the main stage against the natural architecture of the trees and the hills in the background. Further contrast is clear in the bright colours of the prominent revellers against the darker, shady colours of the group to the right (which in fact spill over from the marble villa into the natural scene in the background). The whole scene is enveloped in a light ochre, which inspired John Constable to say that Watteau’s painting seems “…[to be] painted in honey: so mellow, so tender, so soft and so delicious.”

Looking away from the radiating dancing couple, up towards the right and on the top of a balcony on the right, you’ll notice a masked Arlecchino observing the whole scene playing below. This little figure on the balcony draws in the viewer and might even cause one to feel self-conscious. From his high view point all are oblivious of being watched.

Even though the painting is devoid of obvious moonlight, bright sunlight is also not present. It is more as if the sun is setting, the party has lost its initial excitement and the early dusk-lit melancholy is falling across the scene. Moonlight is imminent. The musicians playing seems muted and the merrymakers are spreading across the landscape. If you stare at the painting long enough then the rustling of the leaves and the rushing of the fountain’s water become audible.

Paul Verlaine – Fêtes Galantes

It is then from the perspective of our masked spectator on the balcony that one can read Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de Lune“, from the 1869 collection “Fêtes Galantes“.

Clair de Lune

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.


Your soul is a chosen landscape
Beguiled by masqueraders and bergamaskers 
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All singing in a minor key
Of conquering love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
Tall and slender amid marble statues.

In Verlaine’s text we find similar juxtapositions of contrasts as we see in Watteau’s painting. The first is the masqueraders associated with the refined nobility contrasted with the bergamask, which was a rustic dance attributed to the people of Bergamo. This less elegant dance is usually associated with buffoonery and clowns. The revellers seem sad under their fantastic disguises as they dance and sing. The songs they sing do not reflect their true spirit. In the final strophe the whole universe is drawn into the scene where the moon, the birds and the fountains are projecting the melancholy of the celebrators.

Gabriel Fauré – Clair de Lune

Gabriel Fauré responded to the juxtaposition of opposite images and concepts in Verlaine’s poem when he set Clair de lune (Op. 46 nr. 2) in 1887. It can be seen as the quintessential French mélodie.This setting is the last mélodie of the second recueil, which Graham Johnson mentions in A French Song Companion, “[Fauré] provide[s] us with an appetiser…for the third recueil.” 

The piano part is a solo piece with a voice obbligato swerving above the piano. The steady movement in the piano creates the stately movement of a Minuet. Remembering Watteau’s painting it is as if the voice observes the scene and comments on what is seen. The two entities are independent of each other in this song, only meeting momentarily at “Toute en chantant sur le mode mineur/L’amour vainquer et la vie opportune. This objectivity of the voice creates a spacious dome above the piano part, which in its melody rarely strays from its stepwise motion. The left hand of the piano part is playing arpeggios that echoes the plucking of a lute.

As songsters (singers and collaborative pianists) we always have to sketch a picture. It can either be by for instance imitating a nightingale in the way you play a trill or in the colouring of the certain consonants in a word. Having the connection with Watteau’s painting now is for sure to transform my thoughts the next time I am working on Clair de Lune.

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