top of page
Allegory of matrimonial love

Allegory of matrimonial love


French school

c. 1740-70

Pencil and wash on paper

16.8 x 12.0 cm (image), 34.8 x 31.0 cm (frame)

Higher res images available on request

Drawings assumed an increasing importance in eighteenth century France. No longer were they simply part of the artist’s training or working process, but they became desirable as works in their own right, to be displayed and admired for their beauty and skill. The anonymous artist of this drawing has melded several of the popular artistic genres of the first half of the eighteenth century - fêtes galantes, garden views and stage sets - into tableau of matrimonial love, that is both visually charming, and a gentle moral lesson.


What at first glance appears to be simply an informal group of revellers enjoying a garden entertainment, on closer inspection reveals itself to be an allegory of the progress and pleasures of matrimonial love. Two loose groupings are connected by the central figure of a child playing with a dog (who themselves are symmetrically mirrored). On the right is a group of strolling musicians, some dressed in the theatrical costumes of the commedia dell’arte. A courting couple look on, while a seated man sings and gazes up at his mistress who plays a guitar. If music be the food of love, play on. Together, this group represents the early stages of romantic love. Their gestures, though the pointing arms of the violin player, singer, seated woman the child, lead our gaze across to the group of figures on the left.


The figures gathered on and around the bench represent matrimonial love, the natural consequence of romantic love. A married couple sit close together, looking affectionately at each other. The woman holds a toddler on her knee, while their small son stands beside his father. The standing woman is perhaps a grandmother, standing protectively over the family.


Above the couple, a statue of Flora with a small child at her knee, holds a flower garland over their heads, a traditional symbol of new life, hope and faith for a married couple. Flora herself is a love goddess, of sexuality and fertility, love, blossoming, flowers, fruit and gardens. The children, of course, are the fruit of the couple’s blossoming love. The garden setting echoes the symbolism. The implication is clear: romantic love finds its best fulfilment in matrimonial love and the domestic pleasures of family. At a time when extra-marital sex was frequent among the elite and Louis XV’s mistresses enjoyed a prominent place at court, it was a subtle protest by the artist.


The figures in our drawing are arranged as though they are on a stage. They turn towards the picture plane, the receding garden perspective has the appearance of painted scenery and the completely smooth ground is slightly tilted towards us like a stage. But the figures are not animated or interrupted in a scene of action, as they were, for example in Hubert François Gravelot’s engravings of scenes from the Opera of Flora. They have been composed into a static tableau, and do not represent a real event, nor probably a scene from a play, but are instead intended as an allegory.


In this drawing, we can see the influence of the fête galante, a genre largely created by Antoine Watteau in the early eighteenth century, in which elegantly dressed courting couples, strolling players, children and dogs relax and are entertained in an informal garden setting. Yet although many of the elements of the fête galante are present in this drawing, its symmetrical and artificial composition contrasts with the naturalism (albeit carefully composed) of Watteau and his followers. The garden we see here is highly artificial, staged rather than natural.


Gardens and theatres were closely associated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some baroque gardens actually included theatres, such as that designed by Andre Le Nôtre at the Tuileries, while temporary stages were erected at Versailles. Other baroque gardens delighted pleasure-seekers with tricks of illusion. ‘Trees’ turned into fountains, wooden arbours (like those in the drawing) were painted to look like stone, and trompe l’oeil painted ‘perspectives’ created fictive vistas at the end of gravelled walks. We can see this elision of garden and theatre in the paintings of Jean Cotelle (1646-1708), who depicted the loves and intrigues of the gods in a stage-like setting of the gardens of Versailles. Similarly, the garden/theatre designs of Daniel Marot (1661-1752) (View of a Palace Garden, Met Museum) and Jacques de Lajoüe (Study for a stage set, Met Museum) blur the boundaries between garden and stage, real and fictive.


This drawing shares that ambiguity. It is at once a garden and a stage, a realistic group of people and an allegory. And if it is intended as a corrective to the loose morals of the French elite, it is a gentle lesson that is pleasant to learn.

bottom of page