The Fine Art of Living

Rococo reverie: Watteau’s “Les Champs Elysées”, one of the paintings currently on display at the Wallace Collection

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) died of tuberculosis aged 37. He left behind a host of admirers but no wife, no children and few friends. He seems to have been a hard man to like: “cold and indifferent”, “gloomy”, “not very affectionate”, “caustic” and “chilly” — such comments pepper the recollections of those who knew him. Yet apart from a recurrent yet delicate strain of melancholy in his art, his paintings are paeans to love and human sensibility. It was Watteau who invented an entirely new category of painting — the fête galante — in which graceful and elegant figures disport themselves in faux-pastoral settings, with the accompaniment of music and surrounded by the Harlequins and Columbines of the “Commedia dell’Arte.” His pictures represent the informal hinterland of Louis XIV’s pomp-ridden reign and mark the point at which the grandiosities of the Baroque shifted towards the frivolities and delights of the Rococo. This prickly man, so hard to please and so ill at ease with others, seems an unlikely character to help bring about such a transformation.

Watteau has a hold on British imaginations too. He visited England for a year from 1719, probably to consult the celebrated physician Dr Richard Mead about his consumption, and consequently he has long had admirers here. His paintings were not universally appreciated however —indeed a late — 18th-century churchman derided them as embodying “the falsetto of French style and manners”— but his drawings have always been cherished. A pair of complementary exhibitions, Watteau: The Drawings at the Royal Academy and Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and his Circle at the Wallace Collection, now offer the chance to assess the relative strengths of his work.

Watteau himself saw a distinction in his art. His great patron, the picture dealer Gersaint, recalled that Watteau “was more satisfied with his drawings than his paintings and I can assure you that, in that respect, self-esteem hid none of his faults from him”. That may well be because there were none to hide. Watteau, with the likes of Ingres and Schiele, was one of art’s great draughtsmen. And he was a very prolific one too: he left more than 1,000 drawings in a bequest to his patron, the Abbé Haranger. The exhibition at the RA includes some 80 high-quality examples and is the first show here to be dedicated to his graphic work.

Watteau was unusual for his time in that he did not compose his paintings organically by sketching an ensemble but rather by using a stock of drawings he kept in bound volumes, picking and mixing figures and poses rather like adding pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. According to an eye-witness: “He owned some fancy costumes[…]in which he dressed people of either sex[…]and he drew people in attitudes as nature presented them, much preferring simpler attitudes to any others.” When he wanted to paint a picture — for example the large Fête galante in a wooded landscape, 1719-21, in the Wallace Collection exhibition (surely the prototype for Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe)— he would draw the parkland setting and turn to his books of drawings, selecting, say, a cavalier with his back turned, a seated girl in rose silk or a lounging, satiny swain to dot between the trees. 

This very literal sense of composition is both a strength and a weakness: it gives his paintings a certain staginess because the groupings are not taken from life, so figures can overlap uncomfortably, space collapse and eye-lines miss, but it also gives them a narrative ambiguity. What story was Watteau suggesting as he played puppeteer? What can these figures be saying to one another if they appear again, unaltered, with different partners in different pictures? Do these pictures describe the random and fleeting nature of love or its universality? Does this choreographed flirtatiousness represent a state of grace, the perfection of luxe, calme et volupté? Whatever Watteau’s intention — if indeed he had one — his are mood pieces, as heady and rich with possibilities as the costume party in the Alain-Fournier novel, Le Grand Meaulnes.

The 10 choice paintings in the Wallace Collection show and its attendant exhibition of works belonging to Jean de Julienne, the collector and connoisseur who championed Watteau and spread his fame through a comprehensive set of engravings, open the door on the refined world of Watteau’s milieu but it is the drawings at the Royal Academy that best encapsulate his brilliance.

Many of the sheets on display are small slices of perfection, showing his consummate mastery of the trois crayons technique. He used red, black and white chalks to suggest not just form but volume, texture and colour, with subtle changes of pressure on the pencil turning a line from crisp to soft, and using hatchings and smudgings to shepherd the eye from a face to a fabric to a gesture. Some sheets were reused, with extra figures added years after the originals, and some revived — as in a page showing three heads of a young girl which clearly didn’t satisfy him so he quickly added a black mob cap at a later date. 

And in the very best of this peerless array you can sense Watteau becoming caught up in what he was doing and forgetting that he was creating a utilitarian motif for future use and drawing simply for pleasure. There is an image c.1715 of a young woman on a swing, seen from behind, that seems to still time. Clothes and hair are in black, hands and neck in red. She is no Fragonard avant la lettre but a haunting figure at once wistful and erotic. Her head is tilted downwards and there is no hint of a face to be seen. Nevertheless, in this gentle idler, so scurryingly captured, Watteau has portrayed not merely a girl in a reverie but rather just what reveries are for.

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