‘Panthers After the Kill’

Jean-Antoine Watteau: The Portal of Valenciennes, circa 1710–1711
Frick Collection/Michael Bodycomb
Jean-Antoine Watteau: The Portal of Valenciennes, circa 1710–1711

There are painters who aim for a direct, blunt-force power. They marshal colors, shapes, figures, signs, and symbols to convey the strongest possible experiences and emotions. Caravaggio was that kind of painter. So was Rogier van der Weyden, at least when he painted a Crucifixion. In the work of these artists, a smile, a frown, a tear, a sword makes an immediate, unequivocal appeal. The painters are getting right to the point.

But for many of the greatest artists, getting right to the point is anything but the point. Antoine Watteau, who died in 1721 at the age of thirty-six, recoiled from painting’s graphic directness—from its blunt-force power. With Watteau, what you see in a painting, at least what you initially see, is appearances that mask as much as they reveal. The game has only begun. How could it be otherwise, when Watteau took such an interest in the vagaries of young adulthood and young love, themes that are nothing less than invitations to uncertainty?

Watteau was hardly alone in his recoil from visual lucidity. There are many artists who have launched a critique of clarity as they work to complicate painting’s emotional possibilities. To look for layers of feeling or sensibility in an art that is quite literally all on the surface is to almost immediately find oneself in the grip of a paradox. Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Giorgione, Vermeer, Watteau, Chardin, Corot, Cézanne, Braque, and Giacometti have all, in their various ways, embraced this paradox. Beginning with the most fundamental spatial and narrative ambiguities, these artists mount ambiguity on ambiguity—not nihilistically, but constructively, in an effort to make painting subtle, sensuous, elusive. It was Braque who said that painting was like reading tea leaves. How do we read the tea leaves? That is among the most challenging questions raised by a beautiful exhibition at the Frick Collection—it occupies only a single room—entitled “Watteau’s Soldiers.”

Although Watteau was widely admired in his day and had friends who wrote about him after his death, we know relatively little of what he thought about art in general or his own art or the art of his contemporaries or his predecessors. We do know of his admiration for Rubens. And we are aware of his improvisatory compositional methods, which involved developing his paintings incrementally, with figures from his drawings incorporated into his paintings as he proceeded. But it remains impossible to say what Watteau thought about the artistic theories that flourished in Paris in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His paintings of mostly young men and women gathered on terraces or in gardens in elegant clothes as well as costumes from the commedia dell’arte have inspired a torrent of commentary, but the commentators have not come close to a consensus.

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