The Greatest French Artist of His Century

Watteau: The Drawings

an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, March 12–June 5, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition by Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat, with a contribution by Martin Eidelberg
London: Royal Academy of Arts, 198 pp., $55.00

Watteau at the Wallace Collection

an exhibition at the Wallace Collection, London, March 12–June 5, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition by Christoph Martin Vogtherr
London: Wallace Collection, 152 pp., £25.00 (paper)

The recent and remarkable exhibition “Watteau: The Drawings” was housed in the Sackler Wing, completed in 1991 to expand the exhibition space of London’s Royal Academy of Art. The galleries suited Jean-Antoine Watteau’s drawings to perfection. The walls were painted a pale French gray and each drawing was given space in which to breathe.

golding_1-122211.jpg
Private collection, New York
Jean-Antoine Watteau: Studies of a Standing Woman and a Seated Boy Holding a Key

In view of the fame that Watteau’s art attracted during the eighteenth century, his short life is not well documented and we do not know all that much about him. He was born in Valenciennes in either 1684 or 1685. His origins were humble and he was not very educated, but he was intelligent and became quite well read. Before it was annexed to France, Valenciennes had been a Flemish canton under the dominance of Flanders and Spain. Some of his early critics viewed him as a Flemish artist.

In 1702 he reached Paris, where he rejected the florid extravagance of the court of Louis XIV and then proceeded to turn himself into a French artist of a new mode. He worked for a while for an art dealer in premises near Notre Dame. There he made copies of work by Gerard Dou. Ironically, in view of Watteau’s fixation with youth and beauty, they were of an elderly woman wearing reading spectacles. He moved on to work in the studio of Claude Audran III, a celebrated decorative painter who became head curator of the Palais du Luxembourg, which then housed Rubens’s famous cycle The Life of Marie de Médicis. Watteau sketched from it and he had astonishingly natural gifts as a draftsman from the very start.

In private life, although he made some friends, he was basically aloof and self-contained. He was constantly changing his quarters, probably because of disagreements with his various landlords. His facility as an artist also seems to have caused jealousy among his contemporaries. He never executed a self-portrait but he posed for François Boucher1—holding a sketchbook—and Rosalba Carriera did a lovely miniature of him. Watteau comes across as being somewhat detached, well dressed, very elegant. During his lifetime his drawings were felt to be superior to his paintings. He was said to be a slow worker, although there is certainly no evidence of this when he was working on paper.

Watteau was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1712. His pièce d’acceptance was entitled Le pélérinage à l’île de Cythère, often referred to in English as The Embarkation to Cythera, Cythera being an imaginary island paradise dedicated to the art of physical love. The fact that the Académie had to think up a totally new category to accommodate Watteau—les fêtes galantes —testifies to his originality. He was runner-up for the Prix de Rome in 1717 and it is interesting to speculate what effect Rome could have had …

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  1. 1

    The attribution to Boucher is now sometimes challenged.