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The Voyage of Watteau

Watteau: 1684–1721

by Margaret Morgan Grasselli, by Pierre Rosenberg, with the assistance of Nicole Parmantier
National Gallery of Art (Washington), 580 pp., $14.95

Antoine Watteau

by Donald Posner
Cornell University Press, 300 pp., $75.00

Le Serment du Jeu de Paume de Jacques-Louis David

by Philippe Bordes
Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux (Paris), 260 pp., fr 150

There are times when one wishes that the great art historians and theorists of the past who wrote biographies of their contemporaries had been more like the art historians of today…. Put like that the wish appalls by its condescension and Philistinism. Can one really imagine the intelligence and imagination of Vasari or Bellori confined within the pages of an “Outstanding Dissertation in the Fine Arts” or of a contribution to the Art Bulletin or Burlington Magazine? Nonetheless the fact remains that Marcantonio Michiel (who in the first half of the sixteenth century was planning to write a history of Italian art) could have asked Giorgione himself, or at least one of his friends, whether his (Michiel’s) description of the Tempesta as “the small landscape…with the storm, the gypsy and soldier” was an adequate one, or whether this beautiful and enigmatic picture in the Accademia in Venice did not really represent an abstruse legend involving Hermes Trismegistus (or whatever fanciful theory currently holds the field). The answer might perhaps have spared us several dozen articles in the learned journals of today.

Bellori, who was surely among those who would sometimes accompany Poussin on his early morning walks on the Pincio, during which he would “engage in curious and learned conversations with his friends,” could easily have inquired of the master whether in some of his late mythologies (such as The Birth of Bacchus, now in the Fogg Art Museum) he was thinking of the philosophy of Campanella (as has recently been claimed) or merely of the poetry of Ovid (as Bellori himself tells us). If any such question was put (and what Ph.D. student of today would not have put it?), the answer was not committed to paper.

The absence of both any (recorded) question and any (recorded) answer could have its own significance. As far as I know only one attempt has been made to account for the apparent lack of concern shown by the great writers of the past to some of the problems that most tantalize us today. In a challenging article published a few years ago1 Leo Steinberg suggested that Vasari’s famous (or notorious) description of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was deliberately intended to be misleading in order to protect the artist from any danger to him that might have arisen from the possibly heretical implications of his fresco. Vasari gives a brief and somewhat conventional account of the principal figures and sums up Michelangelo’s aims as

none other than to paint the most perfect and best proportioned composition of the human body in the most varied attitudes—and not just this, but at the same time, the effects of the torments and gratifications of the soul: satisfying himself with this part of the art, in which he has been superior to all other artists, and has demonstrated the way to the grand manner and the treatment of the nude and his knowledge of the difficulties of design; and he has facilitated the approach to the principal aim of art—the human body.

Whether or not we accept, wholly or in part, Steinberg’s ingenious argument that this account of the fresco is meant to distract attention from its deeper and by then perhaps subversive meaning (and such tactics would bring to mind Zola’s description of Manet’s potentially indecent Déjeuner sur l’herbe as a sort of abstract pattern of shapes and colors), it is at least tempting to speculate that the art historians of the past could, on occasion, wrestle with issues that are bound to interest us—and then deliberately conceal the fact: for much surviving evidence makes it very difficult to believe that they were indifferent to such issues or that (as obviously sometimes happened) they felt it unnecessary to discuss what would have been perfectly obvious to their own contemporaries.

From the early nineteenth century onward those interviews whose earlier absence so teases us (“But what does Neoplatonism actually mean to you, Signor Vecellio?”) begin to make an appearance in the art-historical literature—but by now it was too late: for with the coming of Romanticism the best artists often claimed to be doing something for which by definition no verbal explanation could be given. How often we hear them complaining that meanings have been read into their works that had never occurred to them. Not always complaining, of course: for many of them were understandably delighted with being given the credit for having plumbed greater depths than they had actually been aware of and welcomed the most preposterous “explanations” of their work.

But before the French Revolution (to take an approximate but convenient date) it had been accepted for some centuries that there was a clear relationship between painting and literature (or the literary approach) and that in that relationship painting was, so to speak, the junior partner. It is not therefore wholly absurd to imagine Antoine Watteau giving perfectly coherent answers to some of the questions we would like to have been able to put to him after visiting the beautiful exhibition of his works that closed in Washington in September and—in even more splendid versions—has moved on to Paris (until February) and Berlin.

Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the biographies of Watteau are in many respects remarkably full and informative—more so than those of almost any other artist in eighteenth-century France, and they help to make up for the fact that not a single authentic letter from him has certainly survived. He evidently made a very striking impact on his friends and contemporaries, and at least seven of them wrote about him—though some of them very briefly indeed. Despite their differences in approach a consistent pattern emerges of a moody, difficult, restless painter whose attitude of pessimistic fatalism is summed up in the chilling remark he once made to a worried friend who was trying to encourages him: “le pis-aller, n’est-ce pas l’hôpital? On n’y refuse personne2—and this was apparently said before the onset of the tuberculosis that was to kill him in 1721 at the age of thirty-seven.

The Comte de Caylus, the scholar and theorist who reports this episode, was—though much derided by Diderot and others as a bully and a pedant—the most interesting, cultivated, and (in some ways) sympathetic of Watteau’s biographers. For in his account of the artist, which was given as a lecture to the students of the Academy, he found himself having to reconcile his deep personal affection for him, which had evidently been reciprocated, with his own views on painting, which were utterly at variance with everything he believed to be characteristic of the dangerously seductive work of his dead friend. For these reasons Caylus is, in some ways, just the kind of articulate and critical biographer whose evidence (as I suggest) ought to be most welcome to us: much modern writing about Watteau is devoted to disputing what Caylus has to tell us about him.

When we used to draw together from the model,” Caylus recalled nostalgically,

we experienced, he and I…, the pure joy of youth, combined with the free play given to our imaginations…. I can say that Watteau who everywhere else was so somber, so atrabilious, so shy and so caustic was, on these occasions, simply the Watteau of his own paintings: that is to say, pleasant, gentle and perhaps a little rustic or unsophisticated, as indeed we would conceive of him from looking at his pictures.

For Caylus, Watteau was an artist whose achievement failed to match his ambition. (This may, of course, have been Caylus’s ambition for him.) Despite his admirable devotion to the practice of drawing from life, he was never able to master the nude; he could not cope with history and allegorical painting, and he was infinitely mannered. Above all, according to Caylus, Watteau’s refusal to make preliminary studies for his paintings, and his habit of selecting for them figures picked almost at random from his stock of drawings and only then making a composition, meant that these compositions “have no subject.” Because Watteau did not depict the “passions,” his pictures are void of true “action”—and in this context the word “passions” surely means the overt expression of states of mind and feeling, while “action” implies legible narrative.

Thus Caylus, the witness, made use of his account of Watteau’s working methods (an account which research has shown to be substantially, though not invariably, accurate) in order to interpret the essence of his finished pictures, and his interpretation can be justified insofar as it provides a perfectly reasonable explanation of what we actually see on most of the canvases: elegantly dressed men and women engaged in some sort of relationship to one another, but a relationship so imprecise that commentators have often been prepared to consider the imprecision itself as constituting the poetry, rather than as detracting from it as did Caylus.

The aim of Donald Posner’s new book (and also of some of the entries in the exhibition catalog) is—partly at least—to challenge both these approaches and to argue that “the meanings of Watteau’s fêtes galantes are far more explicit and more accessible than often thought.” Whereas too many writers have been less concerned to understand meanings than to concoct a suitably musical language with which to match the music of the pictures (the analogy is inescapable), Posner’s admiration is characterized by steady concentration and curiosity, and he makes careful use of the titles given to them in the engravings made soon after Watteau’s death, for these may well reflect the artist’s intentions.

Posner’s insights are often valuable and convincing, though they are sometimes expressed in unfortunate prose: “In La Lecon d’amour [Stockholm]…the scene centers on the efforts the company makes to establish relationships.” This suggests a session of group therapy, but Posner more usually discusses the pictures themselves with tact and sensitivity. Indeed, the fact that his thoughtful book constitutes the most stimulating investigation into the art of Watteau now available makes it all the more regrettable that so many of the plates are of such indifferent quality. The hefty and very informative Washington catalog is well illustrated, but obviously the selection of works reproduced reflects those actually exhibited, which means that some masterpieces have had to be excluded.

Posner’s interpretations (and those by some of his predecessors) demonstrate that for all Watteau’s mastery of “patterns of behavior and emotional content in order to reveal psychological under-currents, the tensions, frustrations and longings in human relationships and social intercourse,” the pictures can only very rarely in themselves be made to reveal their secrets (if they have any), and it is often necessary to call upon extraneous evidence—with varying degrees of success. Like the artists of the seventeenth-century Low Countries to whom his art owed so much, Watteau probably made use of puns and proverbs in a manner that would have been obvious to his contemporaries.

  1. 1

    A Corner of the Last Judgment,” in Daedalus, vol. 109, no. 2 (Spring 1980), p. 210.

  2. 2

    If worst comes to worst, isn’t there always the charity ward? They turn away no one.”

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