The Country Dance
The Country Dance

The Country Dance

Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721)

Currently on View in H209
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In this, his earliest known painting, Watteau draws inspiration from scenes of fairs, peasant weddings, and country dances by Flemish painters like Peter Paul Rubens and David Teniers. Compared to their Flemish forebears, however, Watteau's dancing villagers are more civilized and courtly. Rustic music, which frequently accompanies drunkenness and debauchery in Flemish art, here alludes to the natural harmony of social and familial order.

The increasing popularity in 18th-century France of novels and plays with rural themes also reveals a new appreciation for the imagined harmony and simplicity of country life.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Under arching tree boughs, villagers play music while a toddler amuses a dancing couple with his imitation of the young maid's graceful movements. Watteau's merry subject recalls the scenes of fairs, peasant weddings, and country dances by Flemish artists like Pieter Bruegel and Peter Paul Rubens, whose raucous and earthy Kermess had been in the French royal collection since 1685. This is perhaps Watteau's earliest known painting, made shortly after he emigrated to Paris from the historically Flemish city of Valenciennes. Compared to their Flemish forebears, however, Watteau's dancing peasants are civilized, even ennobled. Their movements are contained and courtly, and some are smartly dressed. Rustic music, usually accompanying debauchery and drunkenness, here alludes to the natural harmony of social and familial order. The musicians engage the viewer with halting, coy glances suggestive of the mutual awareness between actor and spectator so characteristic of Watteau's art.

Watteau reworked his northern European subject in an emphatically Venetian style. Both the nostalgic interpretation of peasant life, and the soft, atmospheric effect reveal the French artist's debt to Venetian landscapes, with their pastoral love themes, paradisiacal settings, and painterly brushwork. In the context of contemporary academic debates about the merits of drawing versus color, Watteau's Country Dance was a declaration in favor of the power of color to conjure an idyllic world of pure pleasure, adding momentum to the 18th-century style known as Rococo.

[Watteau], a pupil of Gillot, Flemish by birth, succeeds very well in grotesques, landscapes, fashions.
-Collector Carl Gustaf Tessin, 1715

Private collection, southern France {1}
(Wildenstein & Co., New York);{2}
Purchased by (Max Safron Galleries, New York);{3}
Purchased by Josiah K. Lilly Jr. [1893-1966], Indianapolis, in 1961;{4}
Mrs. Herman C. Krannert [1890-1974];
Given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, now the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, in 1974 (74.98).
{1} See Anthony F. Janson and A. Ian Fraser, 100 Masterpieces of Painting: Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1980, p. 127.
{2} See letter from Louis Goldenberg of Wildenstein & Co. to George D. McKee dated 26 August 1976 in IMA Historical File (74.98).
{3} See Richard Rand, Intimate Encounters: Love and Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century France, Princeton 1997, catalogue no. 1.
{4} See footnote 3 above.

Object Information

Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721)
creation date
about 1706-1710
oil on canvas
19-1/2 x 23-5/8 in. (canvas)
27-3/4 x 32 x 4-1/4 in. (framed/Optium)
accession number
credit line
Gift of Mrs. Herman C. Krannert
Public Domain
European Painting and Sculpture Before 1800

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