©Dulwich Picture Gallery

Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721)

Les Plaisirs du Bal Oil on canvas (52.6 x 65.4cm) Painted in Paris around 1715

This is a scene of wish-fulfilment - a warm dusk in the marble-vaulted summer-house of an Italian garden. There is music from a rustic band; dancing in fancy-dress; romance, flirtation and chat. An eighteenth-century viewer would have been aware of a daring informality: in the outdoor setting; in the mix of high and low life; and in the confusion of dressing-up and dressing-down. After the stuffiness of the Court at Versailles, this scene would have conveyed the idea of liberty. What makes the mood so vivid is Watteau's ability to suggest atmosphere, as if he is painting not just the figures, trees and columns, but also the air surrounding them. There are areas, particularly in the distance, where the touch of the brush become mysterious and beautifully imprecise - suggesting a confusion of leaves, sky and distant hills, seen through the falling waters of the fountain.

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