"Fête Galante" and Demeaning Terms

In my earliest art history classes, I remember learning that Watteau was associated with the “fête galante” genre from the Rococo period. The “fête galante” includes depictions of feasts or celebrations of gallantry, and it usually showed idle aristocrats in outdoor settings.

Today, Watteau is hailed as the master of the “fête galante.” However, it appears that the term intially was used in a more demeaning sense. I just learned today that “fête galante” was first applied to Watteau’s art by the Academy, so that Watteau would be separated “from the scholarly and morally serious narratives of the history genre.”1 The Academy renamed Watteau’s painting Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (shown above, 1717) to Un Feste Galante.2 I guess that Watteau’s title and allusion to semi-mythic subject matter was troubling for the Academy; they didn’t want this painting to be associated with the history/mythological paintings that were considered the “highest” form of art at the time. Therefore, “by admitting Watteau [to the exhibition], but not as a history painter, the Academy both welcomed and snubbed him.”3

It’s interesting to see that several demeaning or derogatory terms have been associated with art initially, and then the term ends up sticking to the art/artist in a positive way. The Fauvists received their name after an art critic compared the group’s paintings to “fauves” or wild beasts. Likewise, the term “impressionists” was coined by the art critic Louis Leroy as a demeaning way to mock the art of Claude Monet (and others that exhibited in the Salon des Refuses in 1874).

Can you think of any other instances when a demeaning term has become a badge of honor for an artist or movement?

1 Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, eds., The Changing Status of the Artist (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 229.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 232.
  • Zillah says:


  • heidenkind says:

    Uh, Primitive? I really have no idea. Watteau's a little much for me, though. 😉

  • M says:

    Yeah, totally. Good call, Zillah. (I should have thought of this one.)

    "Baroque" definitely was used as a demeaning term. Winckelmann (who is one of the founders of art history) first used the term in 1755. The etymology of the word "baroque" is rather uncertain, but it is closely tied to the Portuguese word barroco, which means an irregularly shaped pearl. Winckelmann used "baroque" to refer to things that were outmoded or unfashionable; he mentioned "baroque" while thinking of "pearls and teeth of unequal size," since they were unfashionable at the time (but are irregularly-shaped teeth ever fashionable? Hmm). The term continued to be abusive throughout the Neoclassical period, and writers used "baroque" to refer to anything in art that was excessive, bizarre, or ridiculous. From what I can tell, it appears that "baroque" became "Baroque" (a coherent, specific artistic movement) in the late 19th century with the writings of Heinrich Wolfflin (particularly with his book Renaissance and Baroque).

    There is an article that I really want to read – it's all about the etymology of the word "baroque" in art historical writing. It's called "Two Words in Art History," Forum for Modern Language Studies 1965 I(2):175-19. I don't really expect anyone to be interested in reading the article, but I want to save the citation information here so that I can find it later. Maybe one day I'll find a copy or break down and pay to read it online.

  • M says:

    That's a good question, heidenkind. I'm not sure if "primitive" was originally used as a demeaning term in art. I took a seminar on Primitivism in grad school, and I remember that the French Primitifs of the early 19th century adopted the term in a positive light.

    That being said, I know that some critics have subsequently viewed "primitivism" as a negative enterprise and the word can have negative connotations. Along these same lines, I remember getting a little offended when someone kiddingly called my art "folksy." 😉

  • M says:

    I thought of another abusive term: "rococo." I should have thought of this when I wrote this post!

    "Rococo" was originally a demeaning term. It was invented at the end of the 18th century to refer to art that was too frivolous, decorative, or fanciful. (See Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, eds., The Changing Status of the Artist (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 236.)

Email Subscription



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.