by Rosie Robbins
"Dance in a Garden". Nicolas Lancret, French, 1690-1743, oil on canvas.
Ackland Fund. Conservation treatment for this painting, completed in 2009, was made possible by the generous support of the Tyche Foundation.
Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Through specific details of Dance in a Garden Nicolas Lancret illustrates that an outdoor feast contains the power and authority to break aristocratic folk out of their constricting norms. The garden allows this particular feast to foster community and a spirit of celebration. The classic elements which typically makeup an elite feast, such as the sweeping ballroom, or champagne on ice are disregarded in this painting and replaced with stream chilled refreshments, and nature’s carpet. With the help of the forest, the guests are invited to taste what they constantly crave; sweet freedom.
Traditionally, upper-class feasts were known to prioritize the quality and quantity of the food itself. The host of these gatherings would often use the food to communicate their wealth or even to provide the guests with pleasure. Lancret portrays that freedom can be found in a counter feast by turning the focus from the food to the music and movement in the Garden. The long table holds only a small bowl of fruit and is disregarded by every guest. Revealing that the food itself is not what demands to be feasted on, instead the dance becomes the main course for the hungry partygoers. The dance is unconfined by marbled walls and falls in the foreground of the feast; delivering pleasure to all. The dancers’ movements and the trees surrounding them sway with delight. The guests body language insinuates a lack of elitist snobbery for they are entranced by the couple’s liberation. The musician keeps in step with the pace of the party through the cadence of his merry tune and the resourceful servant finds a nearby stream to keep the alcohol optimally chilled for the guest’s consumption. These details reveal that nature blurs the hard line which usually exists between the aristocrats and the outside world. This feast gives restricted individuals the space to move around without reservation, which allows for the painting to be a spectacle of freedom. It’s important to note an alternate interpretation based on the way that the two workers (musician and bartender) are painted in dark shadows on the outskirts of the celebration. Lancret, could be communicating that aristocratic feasts are diacritical rather than communal. Rather than collective freedom, there is an element of exclusion which is present and suggests that not all are invited to share in the feast. The freedom to feast appears to be exclusive, and designated only for the privileged.
In the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Emma and Charles have an outdoor wedding feast at the Rousalt family farm which raises similar themes to those present in Lancret. Flaubert goes into great detail to describe the various modes of transportation which deliver the guests, explaining that they arrived: “in carriages, in one-horse chaises, two-wheeled cars, old open gigs, waggonettes with leather hoods and the young people who were from the nearer villages in carts, in which they stood up in rows, holding on to the sides so as not to fall” (Flaubert, pg. 23). The initial journey over to the banquet proves to be extremely cramped. The guest’s are imprisoned in their carts and cars and are crushed in number and capacity. Their physical situation corresponds to their emotional confinement. These folks are hungry for physical and emotional freedom, and the outdoor feast at the Rousalt farm will prove to liberate them. Once the vehicles arrive at the front of the farm, the text states that the guests: “got down from all sides, rubbing knees and stretching arms” (Flaubert, pg. 23). The way that Flaubert documents the process of travel, from elite household to the acreage on the estate, symbolizes the freedom that can be found in an outdoor feast.
Flaubert, Gustave, 1821-1880. Madame Bovary : Mœurs De Province. Paris: Tallandier, 1967.