The Pleasures of the Ball
Antoine Watteau is best known as the creator of the fête galante genre; a style that has its roots in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish merry-making scenes, but which is characterised by a more nuanced language of gesture and emotion, as elegantly dressed and costumed figures engage in gentile flirtations and games of love in idealised garden settings. Here the central focus of the composition is upon a couple dancing a minuet; the groups to either side do not appear to pay any attention to them, however, as they engage in numerous conversations and playful exchanges of their own, the multiplicity of which attests to Watteau's consummate ability to weave complex psychological interactions with a simple glance or turn of the head.
The Pleasures of the Ball exemplifies the delicacy of touch for which Watteau is celebrated - visible here in the sheen of the fabrics and the airy, weightless landscape seen beyond the loggia - a fluency which derives ultimately from the open brushwork and broken colour of Rubens and 16th-century Venetian painting. The figure of the black boy wearing a turban gazing down at the festivities from the balcony, and the page serving wine to the lady on the right are directly based on Veronese’s work – the servant boy being a direct quotation from Veronese’s Christ and the Centurion (Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City).
To the left, the figures of Harlequin, Pierrot and Mezzetin, stock figures from the Comedia dell’arte, can be seen amongst the throng, highlighting the theatrical nature of the fête galante and its precarious balance between masquerade and reality. The artist's fine, rapid brush strokes are perfectly captured in the caryatides (sculpted female figures used as columns) supporting the right-hand niche, whose suppleness defies the stone they are carved in, enhancing the dreamlike quality of the painting.