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An Escape from the Life of the French Court

by Katie Friedman

painting - Dance in a Garden (mid-1730s)
“Dance in a Garden,” mid-1730s. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Nicolas Lancret was a French painter whose life spanned from 1690 to 1743. Lancret lived through the evolution of the French court, the end of Louis XIV’s “grand siècle” which spanned from 1643 to 1715, and lastly, through the beginning of the reign of Louis XV (Levi xv). The rich time period in which Lancret lived and painted is reflected heavily in his artwork; if viewed in the time in which it was painted—the year of 1730—Lancret’s Dance in a Garden (displayed above) seems most obviously to show the desire for liberation from the rigidity of court life.

Louis XIV—also known as “the Sun King”—played an important role in shaping the history of France. After gaining power, Louis built the castle of Versailles and moved the capital of France from Paris to Versailles (Dunlop 205). With the construction of this extravagant castle, Louis XIV calculatingly put himself at the center of attention; the entire country revolved around him—thus the nickname “Sun King.” During Louis XIV’s reign, the royal court was also required to move to Versailles; in this way, Louis could watch closely over his court and suppress any dissidence before it began (Sonnino 65).

During Louis’ reign, a de facto code of etiquette was created, and a sort of art of daily performance was developed around this code: “The court was a clear symbol of the king’s triumph over the nobility […] the strict hierarchies, the exacting etiquette, the exquisitely arranged rituals […] symbolic meaning governed every act, gesture, garment, or word…etiquette that imposed a life of endless attention to detail and horrifying boredom on its participants” (Sonnino 66). Louis’ court was expected to act a certain way, walk a certain way, talk a certain way, eat a certain way. For the court, it became as if their entire lives were a spectacle: “Louis manipulated the nobility…turning them into decorations, mere mannequins around his throne” (Sonnino 66). And when Louis XIV’s great grandson, Louis XV, gained power, the lives of those in the court hardly improved; they were still expected to live at Versailles, and they were given little to no freedom (Dunlop 463).

Nicolas Lancret’s painting, Dance in a Garden, portrays an aristocratic scene in which a group of people has gathered for a meal. Lancret created this painting fifteen years after the end of Louis XIV’s reign during Louis XV’s reign, so it is interpretable as a commentary on the political nature of the time. Although it is unsure exactly which years Lancret intended to illustrate in Dance in a Garden, the mood of the painting fits the time period between the late 1600s and the mid 1700s.

In the painting, a group of people appears to be dining in the woods—they seem to have chosen this spot in order to hide or to escape. Similar to the reign of Louis XIV in which he was the center of France’s attention, this group of diners captures the spotlight—both literally and figuratively—in this painting. The group of men and women are gathered around a fine table that is clothed in a white tablecloth and nestled under a white tent, yet trees surround them on all sides. A servant stands on the periphery of the tent. The elegance of this table setting suggests that although the aristocrats enjoy luxury, they prefer partaking in this indulgence at their own will and not as subordinates.

Some of the characters in the painting are eating, some are laughing, some talking, and some even dancing. The detail of the piece of art intensifies as the viewer gets closer, and for the most part, the peoples’ faces appear to show contentment. Although some of those sitting at the table are observing the dancers, the stares appear to simply signify attraction to the dancing. There is food and drink on the table—not a lot, though—so the diners seem to be brought together not only by food but also by an element of comradery.

The lighting of the painting focuses the viewer on the actual feast scene itself; the dark, dull colors of the forest contrasted with the soft, light colors of the table, tent, clothing, and faces make this scene the center of the painting—the scene on which the viewer’s eyes instinctively focus. Even further, the bright, more vivid colors of the two dancers’ clothing signify extreme release; they are the ultimate escapists. In the comfort of the feast, these two characters are able to transcend the reality of the typical confines of their situation and live only in the present. As exhibited by the open, white sky shining down over the table in the painting, these aristocrats they have found an escape—they have found a degree of freedom away from the shadows of court life.

These aristocrats chose seclusion, then, as a means of emotional release. Interestingly, they are joined together by a meal; they share in each other’s merriment through the breaking of bread. In this sense, this scene is what one would consider a real feast; though there is not an extravagant amount of food, there is a celebration that unites persons over food and allows them to let go of inhibitions and to slip away from the restraints of habitual life.


Works Cited:

Dunlop, Ian. Louis XIV. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Print

Levi, Anthony. Louis XIV. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2004. Print.

Sonnino, Paul, ed. The Reign of Louis XIV. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1990. Print.



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