France Shows Off Its Favorite Genre:Sex and Ironing

French painting from the 18th century is justly famous for its preoccupation with the pursuit of earthly privileges and pleasures. It abounds in delightful scenes of luxuriant luncheon parties, well-equipped pastoral outings, displays of sexual dalliance and sundry other pleasurable pastimes. Indeed, we’re sometimes made to feel that in the era preceding the “deluge” of the Revolution, an entire society enjoyed a protracted holiday from workaday cares. And yet, some of the period’s most poignant and most admired pictures-Chardin’s portraits of maids and children, for example, as well as Greuze’s melodramatic scenes of domestic strife-are devoted to subjects far removed from the world of extravagant fêtes and elaborately staged boudoir frolics.

It’s the great merit of the exhibition called The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting , on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, that it gives us such a clear and sympathetic account of the period’s widely divergent currents and countercurrents. While there’s an abundance of frippery and ostentation that we associate with certain aspects of 18th-century French taste, pangs of social conscience are on display, too. And so is that other universal pastime: the game of love.

Paintings devoted to the latter subject constitute a virtual genre of their own within the very loosely defined boundaries of what is called genre painting. Which leads one to ask: What is genre painting anyway? This is a question that may be more easily answered by listing what it isn’t. It isn’t pure landscape, though landscape often provides the setting, and it isn’t any painting devoted to historical, mythological, religious or allegorical subjects. Some portraits seem to qualify but not others; what the criteria are remains to be explained.

According to Colin B. Bailey, writing in the catalog of the current exhibition, genre painting was defined in France in 1752 as “paintings of gallant or country scenes, fairs, smoke dens, and other cheerful subjects”; later, in England in 1873, it was defined as “a style of painting which depicts scenes and subjects of common life.” A classification that brings together paintings as radically different in style and spirit as Watteau’s series of fêtes galantes and Greuze’s melancholy scenes of family grief-the one pure poetic fantasy, the other didactic in the manner of social realism-is less a classification than a conundrum without a key.

The paintings in this exhibition embrace such immense differences in social classes that the very notion of “common life” or “cheerful subjects” is all but meaningless. Between the gaggle of women depicted in Etienne Jeaurat’s Prostitutes Being Led Off to La Salpêtrière (1757) and the female figures in Pierre Subleyras’ The Amorous Courtesan (circa 1735)-a painting based on a tale of La Fontaine-there’s neither a “common life” nor a common style. The former is rendered in a public style more appropriate to the depiction of celebratory procession, whereas The Amorous Courtesan is a triumph of painterly virtuosity.

Never mind. We don’t go to art exhibitions to be instructed in the vagaries of academic classification. We go to them for aesthetic pleasure, and by that measure The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard is an unalloyed delight. If it included only the paintings by the artists who are advertised in the title, the show would be a capital event-but it also includes marvelous paintings by Nicolas Lancret, Jean-Baptiste Pater, Jean-François de Troy, François Boucher, Hubert Robert and, of course, Greuze.

For me, the most delightful discovery in the exhibition is the work of Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845), especially two paintings: Young Woman Ironing (circa 1800-1803) and The Game of Billiards (1807). With Boilly, we leave the world of 18th-century divertissements for the realm of 19th-century realism-and we do so with a certain relief. In some respects, The Game of Billiards is as sexy as anything else in the exhibition, but in Boilly it’s sex devoid of artifice and fancy.

The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting remains on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Jan. 11, 2004, then travels to the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Gemaldgalerie, in Germany (Feb. 8 to May 9, 2004).