Issue Number: 110
The rococo artist Antoine Watteau was the consummate painter of dreams, idealising French society in honeyed tones. But in his drawings he reveals an astonishing ability to conjure characters from the teeming life that surrounded him in eighteenth-century Paris. Lisa Hilton sets the scene for the RA’s exhibition of Watteau’s drawings
Jean-Antoine Watteau, 'Two Studies of Women, the One on the Left with Arms Raised; the One on the Right Seated, Pulling up her Stocking', c. 1716-1717 It might have been a scene from a Watteau canvas: gorgeously dressed ladies chattering as they strolled, elegant officers flirting, a lapdog clutched to a powdered bosom, a carefree train of courtiers out for a pleasant walk in that champagne-coloured autumn light unique to the Ile de France. In fact, the court’s destination was the royal sepulchre of St Denis, and this particular stately promenade was the funeral procession of Louis XIV, in September 1715. Europe’s most glamorous dictator had barely been interred when the French aristocracy, who had been imprisoned by the stultifying etiquette of Versailles for 30 years, took flight for Paris. With the ensuing Regency of Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, what has been called the most civilised of centuries truly began. And though few of the courtiers rattling eagerly in their carriages to the capital knew his name, the age had already found its painter – Antoine Watteau.
Nearly 300 years later, the Royal Academy is uniting 88 works in the first retrospective of Watteau’s drawing in the UK. This is the biggest ever show of his drawings and is curated by Pierre Rosenberg, a Watteau expert and former director of the Louvre and his colleague Louis-Antoine Prat, a drawings specialist at the Louvre. The two compiled the catalogue raisonné of Watteau’s work, published in 1996.
For this exhibition, they have divided the drawings into five thematic sections. These start with Watteau’s early and evident mastery of line and tone, then move on to the exotic figures of Persian officials and poignant renderings of Savoyards. Next is a section on the fête galante, a genre he invented with its idyllic evocations of ladies and gentlemen at leisure outdoors. There is a room of nudes both academic and erotic and the show concludes with his late style, which illustrates his dedication to technical innovation up until his death. Here, the rich, powdery sanguine of his early drawing becomes more subtle and muted. Stumping (smudging down the chalks to blend them, with the thumb or dampened leather) is used extensively to express the transitions of tone in the human face. The exhibition includes drawings from both private and public collections in Europe and America, some of which have only recently been discovered and will thus be showing in the UK for the first time. The Wallace Collection’s concurrent show on Watteau and his circle is an extraordinary opportunity to compare Watteau’s canvases with these drawings, which are less the foundation of his paintings than, perhaps, their quintessence.
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was only just born French. Details of his biography are scarce. His birthplace of Valenciennes was part of Flanders but had been annexed by Louis XIV in 1678, and all his short life, Watteau considered himself to be Flemish. As soon as he grew up though, he left for Paris. He came from modest circumstances: his father, a tiler, known for his violent temper, apprenticed Watteau to Jacques-Albert Gérin, a local artist. But with no court connections, Watteau knew that his best hope of success lay in Paris. For the first two years there, he eked out an existence as a copyist in the atelier of Etienne Desrais on the Pont Notre-Dame. Later, he claimed ruefully that he could still execute a perfect St Nicolas from memory.
He was lucky enough to be spotted by an established painter, Claude Gillot, and trained in his studio from 1705-08. Gillot, famous for his strange, frieze-like bacchanals, was described by the Goncourt brothers in their history of eighteenth-century French art as ‘the last pagan of the Renaissance’. His work, greatly influenced by the theatre, was to undergo a significant change after 1715, gesturing towards the lighter, more fanciful style that his pupil was to make his own.
Watteau next found a place with the keeper of the Palais du Luxembourg, Claude Audran. Both Francesco Primaticcio’s work at Fontainebleau and Raphael’s in the Vatican had inspired Audran, who in his own decorative work rejected the oppressive, ornate style which had dominated the last century. In turn, Watteau not only absorbed Audran’s taste but the technique of light, swift brushwork required for the white or gilded backgrounds on which Audran worked. Watteau was also exposed to Rubens and especially his painting cycle in the Medici gallery at the Luxembourg, which he studied and copied, while the gardens of the palace provided him with his first real experience of landscape painting. He would make use of his studies of the Luxembourg gardens in much the same way as those of the characters he drew, constantly rearranging them in different settings. These elements – the delicate style as developed by Gillot, the decorative techniques he learned from Audran and the colours and vistas he absorbed at the Luxembourg – formed the essence of Watteau’s painting.
After receiving second prize in the 1709 Prix de Rome, Watteau found his first dealer in Pierre Sirois and began to work independently. Among Sirois’ largely bourgeois clients, Watteau acquired a reputation for fêtes galantes. He also painted military subjects and scenes from the theatre, but the cohesion of his style was achieved in the fêtes galantes which he began to produce after his admission to the French Academy in 1712. His reception piece, Pilgrimage to Cythera was delivered, after much prompting, in 1717. In the drawing Three Studies of Pilgrims (c.1711-12) the figure on the far right is a study for the kneeling figure in the painting. In its harmony, its indefinable melancholy, its dreamy, contemplative charm, the painting was like nothing the stuffy, rule-bound Academicians had ever seen. In the Goncourt brothers’ words, ‘It is Cythera, but it is the Cythera of Watteau. It is Love, but it is poetic love… modern Love with its aspirations and corona of sadness’. Watteau’s refusal to adhere to the accepted models of Academic style produced some misguided remarks about his ‘deficiencies’. But the grand old men conceded that they had been confronted with an entirely original painter and created a new genre, that of the fête galante, purely for him.
From 1716, Watteau lived intermittently at the home of Pierre Crozat, a wealthy collector whose collection of drawings, including works by Titian, Bassano and Campagnola, had a profound effect on the artist’s education as a draughtsman. Watteau briefly visited England in 1719, possibly with the aim of consulting the celebrated physician Dr Richard Mead about the tuberculosis with which he was already afflicted. He worked briefly in the British capital, but the trip was counterproductive, as several contemporaries claimed that the fogs and polluted air of London exacerbated the disease.
On his return to Paris in 1720, Watteau agreed to paint a shop sign for the art dealer Edme-François Gersaint’s gallery, which came to be seen as an iconic work. He was able to work only in the morning, nevertheless he completed the piece in just eight days. The Sign of Gersaint (1720) is an elegant, slanting, playful commentary on both public and painters, the galante coquette appearing as a chic modern nymph, wandered from the woods into this commercial, urban setting.
The next year, Watteau left Paris for Nogentsur-Marne in an attempt to recover his health. He died there in July that year, aged 37. Although the reign of Philippe of Orléans, the Regent, was just six years old, Watteau is indubitably a Regency artist, having accomplished a break with the pompous, stylized tradition of Louis XIV in a manner which both dazzled and infuriated his contemporaries.
France at the turn of the century, at the time Watteau had arrived in Paris, was the most powerful nation in Europe but was entering a period of decline. The War of the League of Augsburg was just concluded, that of the Spanish Succession about to begin. Year after relentless year, the king’s armies rode out on campaign, through a countryside racked and abandoned after decades of conflict. As Louis XIV acknowledged on his deathbed, when he warned his heir against his own passions for building and warfare, the cultural and military triumphs of the grand siècle had come at an appalling price. The nation was sliding into bankruptcy and the condition of the peasants remained one of medieval squalor. Not that the aristocracy had much opportunity to see this, even if they had wanted to do anything about it.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, 'The Remedy', c.1716-17 Louis XIV had been traumatised in his childhood by the civil wars known as the Fronde, during which he had lived a dangerous and humiliatingly impoverished life, and he was determined that the great magnates should never again be in a position to challenge royal authority. So he built Versailles, the most gorgeous prison the world had ever seen, ran his government through a new bureaucratic class, the noblesse de robe, and reduced the greatest names in France, when they were not on the battlefield, to glorified pageboys. To be seen by the King became the great purpose of life, and the most petty privileges, such as handing him a napkin, became the focus for deadly ambition. Exile to one’s country estate was more terrifying than the Bastille, since Louis’ tyrannical choreography exercised such a grip that to be absent from the endlessly revolving ballet of Versailles was, quite literally, to cease to exist for him. Life at the palace was, however, extremely agreeable, at least until the King married his pious morganatic wife Mme de Maintenon, and the glacial rigour of etiquette began to kill everyone with boredom. The younger set at court began to sneak off to Paris, their escape facilitated by the fact that the routine at Versailles was by now so ossified that anyone in Europe could glance at a clock and know precisely what the King of France was doing.
When Louis XIV died, the court doctors had already killed off three dauphins in quick succession, and he was succeeded by his fragile five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV. The court surrounding Philippe of Orléans, the Regent, at the Palais Royale in Paris, was now the centre of fashionable life. Philippe was the son of Louis XIV’s flamboyantly homosexual brother. He was a clever, brave, cultivated man, interested in science and the arts. Foolishly, the King had kept him in the background, kicking his heels at Versailles and venting his humiliation in scandalous behaviour. He became a father aged 13 by the daughter of his concierge, indulged in wild drinking and gambling and dabbled in alchemy. In 1692 he had been married, much to the disgust of his family, to Louis’ legitimised daughter by his mistress the Marquise de Montespan. The Duchess of Orléans tolerated her husband’s incessant womanising, ignored the horrible rumour that he was having an affair with their daughter and consoled herself by growing extremely fat. Despite his lifestyle, the Regent was a skilful ruler who was determined to continue the cultural dominance France had acquired under Louis XIV. He assembled a great art collection, promoted the universities and especially the theatre, opened the Royal Library to the public and took a particular interest in mathematics and the natural sciences.
As the aristocracy flooded back to the city, Paris came alive once more, and the streets surrounding the beautiful hôtels particuliers in the fashionable Faubourg St Germain were crowded with artists and carriage makers, dressmakers and art dealers. The nobility and the increasingly powerful urban bourgeoisie bought china, silver, linen and pictures of exceptional quality, their embroidered silk clothes were fortunes in themselves. They gave, in Voltaire’s estimate, five or six hundred dinner parties each night, consuming more meat in one evening than in a week in London; they danced and gambled by the light of thousands of wax candles and wealthy men competed to keep their mistresses in exquisite style.
This was the licentious, luxurious world that formed the background of Watteau’s art, yet he himself was never quite of it. Under Audran, he had undertaken decorative commissions for aristocratic houses, but with the impressive exception of the Prussian King Frederick, he had no royal patrons. He led an itinerant existence, changing his lodgings frequently, a guest of one friend or another. He was apparently uninterested in money, often in poor health and frustrated by what he saw as the shortcomings of his painting technique. Today, we might say that he suffered from depression. His dealer Sirois described in a l tter the ‘black humours which take possession of his mind’. The Count of Caylus, who knew Watteau and wrote a biography, recalled a conversation in which he tried to rally his friend, reminding him of his success, but received only the curious reply: ‘The hospital is the last resort, is it not? There, no-one is refused admission.’ The Goncourts identified a ‘modernity’ about Watteau in that he conceived of himself as an artist rather than a paid artisan, and displayed a disinterestedness that was quite removed from the more workmanlike approach of successful painters of the period. Watteau had no family, and never established a comfortable life for himself. What he did was draw.
Watteau is considered to be one of the very great draughtsmen of the eighteenth century. His patron Gersaint claimed he was ‘more satisfied with his drawings than with his paintings… I have often seen him out of temper with himself because he was unable to convey in painting the truth and brilliance he could express with his pencil’.
Drawing is key to Watteau’s work. His albums contained a vast cast of characters whom he could rearrange in painted composition. He worked rapidly, usually in his trademark trois crayons style of black, white and sanguine chalk, creating what the Goncourts described as ‘an agglomeration of minutiae, inspired and spontaneous… vivifying the dull tone of the flat paper with the relief and solidity almost of paint’. The drawings allow us to see Watteau studying, assimilating the ideas of the painters who influenced him. As well as Rubens’ Marie de’ Medici cycle at the Luxembourg, Watteau copied figures from sixteenth-century Flemish and Venetian painting, dogs from Teniers, and figures from early seventeenth-century artists Abraham Bloemaert and the Le Nain brothers.
Today Watteau has a reputation as the painter of ethereal, idyllic, aristocratic fêtes galantes. Yet the source of his subjects was the urban life of what was then the largest city in Europe. He conjured the characters of crowded, filthy, gorgeous Pa is into exuberant life, the players of the Italian comedy at the street fair of St Germain, the itinerant Savoyard sweeps and entertainers who trudged to the city to try their luck, musicians and labourers and fashionable ladies and children. His lacy trees and clinging vines were copied from the park at the Palais du Luxembourg, his soldiers are not galloping gallants but the exhausted, unpaid troops of Louis’ incessant wars.
It was the Count of Caylus who had criticised the ‘deficiency of his draughtsmanship’ for his refusal to work in the heroic or allegorical manner so beloved of the ‘long reign’ of Louis XIV. What Watteau did was much more radical. Having absorbed the work of Flemish and Venetian masters into his own style, he took French painting in a new direction, and from his drawings, he created the idealised picture of his age. The exquisite fantasy of the fêtes galantes is an urban dream, a mirage spun so skilfully from the life of the treets that one hardly notices thesleight of hand. Watteau recognised that the certainties of the previous age were past, and he created a new idyll for the new century.
Much is made of the equivocal nature of Watteau’s figures, how uncertainly they appear to be positioned in space, of the languid mystery of their intentions. Rather than claim that Watteau anticipates the fall of the ancien régime in that whirl of figures which Charles Baudelaire described as ‘fluttering capriciously like butterflies with gaudy wings’, it might be said that his tentative compositions apprehend the aspirations of his time. At the end of the eighteenth century, Talleyrand observed that anyone who had not lived before the Revolution could not possibly know its douceur de vivre. Watteau’s drawings are not only powerful artworks in their own right, they bridge the disillusion of the old reign and the enchantment of the new. With his trois crayons, he summons that forgotten sweetness.