As a teenager, Louis XIV had just survived the 1648-1653 ‘Fronde’, an aristocratic rebellion against royal power; as king, he set out to erode aristocratic privileges. He swelled their ranks, adulterating their status by ennobling members of the bourgeoisie; he moved them to Versailles, then a perpetual, overcrowded, building site; he enforced a labyrinthine programme of court etiquette and elaborate divertissements designed to preoccupy them with frivolity. But his glittering court entertainments had faded by the early 1700s – though the tediously elaborate etiquette remained – and as the ‘Sun King’ started to set, France’s nobility seized its chance to withdraw from court life and return to the lights and hôtels of Paris. Here, they organised exclusive, elaborate and cliquey entertainments that harked back to a time when aristocracy was ascendant. The inward- and backward-looking nature of these historical aristocratic fêtes defied the courtly protocols of contemporary Versailles, which had been about making royal magnificence visible to all. They revived, instead, the enchantment of aristocratic France, as its players remembered it.
Watteau depicted these entertainments so frequently that the French Academy created an entire genre to describe his paintings, the ‘fête galante’, today placed explicitly in its own time by the OED definition of ‘an outdoor entertainment or rural festival, especially as depicted in 18th-century French painting’. Watteau includes the essentially nostalgic quality of the historical fêtes in The Pleasures of the Ball, where at least one figure wears seventeenth-century dress. The clothes mark him ‘out of time’ as clearly as Bruce Johnston’s ‘1957’, and he is similarly surrounded by a misty haze created by layers of semi-transparent paint. The incrementality is comparable to ‘Disney Girls’’s laying of mandolin, guitar, flute, piano and synthesiser over gossamer-thin vocals. The effect in both is dreamlike, as if half-remembered.
Yet it’s doubtful such fêtes were remembered at all: Watteau, a roofer’s son, would only have known this aristocratic world from afar. The same was true of many of his clients, drawn mainly from the bourgeoisie – people who aped, but were set apart from, nobility. As France entered the Regency period (1715-1723), the vogue for aristocratic emulation increased, with new public versions of traditionally aristocratic entertainments such as masquerade balls. Here, formal etiquette was suspended; social and class identities were as interchangeable as costume. What Watteau painted may have been closer to these real-life ‘fantasy worlds’, where an apprentice might for a night became an aristocrat, than to the aristocracy’s private fêtes. That we cannot conclusively tell is perhaps the point: the painting offers a playful vision that, like ‘Disney Girls’, mingles fact, fiction and atemporal escapism.
Despite both pieces’ fantastical quality and hazy delicacy, Bruce Johnston has in interviews maintained that ‘Disney Girls’ is a faithful record of his upbringing. It’s a dangerous assertion: when such nostalgia is transformed from wistful half-memory into historical truth, a return to the ‘home’ it speaks of – here, an America before sexual revolution, civil rights or mass protest – may seem possible, and indeed desirable. But it isn’t: like The Pleasures of the Ball, ‘Disney Girls’ dwells in the realm of algia rather than nostos, longing for a place that appears forever lost, yet that was never truly home. Poised mid-minuet, Watteau’s couple will never ‘come home’ to their starting positions, while ‘Disney Girls’ waltzes on in dreamy circles until fade-out.