The Pleasure of Watteau

Antoine’s Alphabet, the new book by the New York art critic Jed Perl, is a set of reflections centered on the painter Antoine Watteau. Some sixty short texts are laid out according to the alphabetical order of their headings. These spell out some themes that anyone familiar with the painter might expect—“Actors,” “Commedia dell’arte,” “Rococo”—and some others they might not—“Beardsley,” “Flaubert,” “Kleist,” “New York City.” The alphabet, in fact, turns out to be a minimum handhold on a bus ride that lurches and deviates, rattling along on sheer intuition.

In a prologue Perl tells us he is going to write about his “favorite painter.” Decades passed in Watteau’s sustaining imaginative company have given him an expanded sense of what might be “Watteauesque”: he is happy to proclaim affinities, strike up correspondences, and explore parallels in whatsoever direction he fancies. Watteau, in his eyes, seems to add new insights into the personas of Diaghilev and Katharine Hepburn. His assured sense of that master’s oeuvre encourages Perl to sketch out little fictions about other painters—giving voice, for instance, to Cézanne’s feelings as he travails over his Pierrot and Harlequin.

Describing his passion for the artist also involves Perl in telling us about his friends and a little about his childhood. One entry becomes a short prose poem on the flavor of New York evenings; another concerns a nineteenth-century chocolate advertisement that reproduces a Watteau painting; and then there are sundry freestanding aphorisms on art and culture. However one approaches it, the little volume in which all these impulses are collected stands sui generis —a personal testament, a labor of love. What it will not really stand up as is a viewer’s guide. While underpinned by study of the best relevant scholarship, it only obliquely yields up the facts about the actual historical Watteau. These are precious, because Watteau’s paintings so unmistakably draw meaning from and give memorable form to a certain now far distant subculture. Antoine Watteau came to Paris to seek work as a painter in 1702, when he was eighteen. He was getting away from a bullying father who headed a family roofing business in the Walloon town of Valenciennes. Years spent at the bottom end of the Paris picture market, churning out production-line devotional images and repro Dutch Masters, ended when Watteau got employment first under a painter of as-seen-on-stage imagery and then under a prestigious interior decorator. Thinking to their specifications, he started to disclose a genius for conceiving vivid and arrestingly designed little multifigure scenes. In 1709, just as his foot was planted on the art-world ladder, Watteau briefly went back home to Valenciennes. He soon thought better of it, but not before he had sketched material for his most laconic group of pictures, scenes of soldiers camped in makeshift countryside bivouacs. The troops he drew were probably returning from the Battle of Malplaquet, one of the series of French defeats that darkened the national …

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