Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) has long been considered an art-historical man of mystery. Even his friends and contemporary biographers complained that they barely knew him. Indeed Watteau’s art and life remain as elusive as the figures in his drawings, which are about to go on display at the RA in the first major exhibition of these works in Britain.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, 'Five Studies of a Woman's Head, One Lightly Sketched', c. 1716-17 Sheet after exquisite sheet shows, as our cover does, ladies glancing sideways, their heads tilted or looking down, lowered eyes fringed with delicate lashes, absorbed in an inner world of their own. It is as though we are catching a glimpse, eavesdropping with our eyes.
These glimpses lay at the heart of Watteau’s art. He used them as source material for his paintings and carried them around with him in albums, prizing them above his paintings. In Watteau’s World Lisa Hilton describes him living through a time of political upheaval and ruinous wars at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Although the honeyed hues of his fêtes galantes came to define eighteenth-century elegance, the wistfulness that pervades Watteau’s work perhaps recalls a troubled past.
The painter Tess Jaray RA suspects as much. ‘Some artists connect with the world only at a tangent: they do not express what they themselves are but find in art an ideal that is missing from their own lives,’ she writes, casting her artist’s eye upon Watteau’s drawings with enlightening results .
To look at art through artists’ eyes can be illuminating, as Richard Cork also found when he asked several sculptor RAs for their response to the RA’s Modern British Sculpture show . Their views were mixed, which is not surprising given the controversy the show has sparked. But Bryan Kneale RA provided valuable insight into the creative process when he described the making of Stack by Tony Cragg RA, who was once his student.
Kneale, an Academician since 1970, told me over lunch that ‘being an RA is more than letters after your name’. Academicians play an important part in running the Academy and occasionally supporting it. For example, the new RA Schools stand at the London Original Print Fair will sell prints made by RAs to raise money to enable the Schools to remain free of charge.
Film director Wim Wenders delivers a lecture in the RA Schools this spring about his double life as a photographer. Wenders’s interview forms part of our new Review & Comment section, covering art-related film and culture and commenting on work we admire, such as Christian Marclay’s The Clock. This mesmerising video splices together thousands of film clips related to time – each one a tiny vignette – so that viewers imagine their own stories while watching others onscreen.
We can never know exactly what stories Watteau’s drawings tell. At the end of her feature, Lisa Hilton quotes Talleyrand’s famous observation ‘that anyone who had not lived before the Revolution could not possibly know its douceur de vivre’. But Watteau’s drawings help us dream of the beauty of a lost age. At a time of information overload, when so little is left to the imagination, it is reassuring to encounter an artist who never reveals all but instead compels us to keep looking.