Watteau Drawings at the Royal Academy: delightful but confusing

8 Mar

This weekend the UK’s first ever exhibition of Watteau drawings opens to the public at the Royal Academy.  The show offers an opportunity to get up close and personal with over 80 of Watteau’s finest drawings. 

The curators have brought great thought and sensitivity to this wonderful selection of Watteau drawings, from many international collections although I did wonder why more works hadn’t been borrowed from the British Museum.  Perhaps the BM had decided to call it a day after lending so many not modern British sculptures to the Modern British Sculpture exhibition downstairs. 

Having studied 18th century French drawing, I was excited that such an eminent gallery had dedicated a central space solely to drawings.  A risk you may say.  In many ways it pays off and the drawings command respect, easily selling themselves as visitors walk around the dimly lit space in hushed reverence.  The Sackler wing becomes a Watteau cathedral!  But, I feel visitors may be left confused as to the purpose of the works.  They have been hung as if they were paintings.  What makes them stand out as drawings, as works on paper?  Well, nothing and this is where I feel the exhibition falls slightly short. 

Perhaps I am being pedantic but the exhibition fails to explain in adequate detail that these drawings were never intended to be framed and exhibited in this way.  In the first half of the eighteenth century, the collecting of drawings was mainly pursued by scholars and connoisseurs, well-versed in the history of art, who could, therefore, appreciate the skill of draughtsmanship.  From the mid-century, elaborately mounted drawings became increasingly popular and were highly valued as sources of pleasure and instruction.  This period saw the rising phenomenon of the connoisseurial collection, where aesthetic objects within a gentleman’s collection were treated carefully, bound in albums and housed in libraries.  A collector’s choice of artworks reflected his social status, affirmed his identity and even constructed a narrative of his ideal self.  The drawing as a finished collectible entity was a sensation in the 18th century.  Drawings were no longer simply for preparatory purposes but autonomous sheets.  They had become works of art in their own right, consumer objects offering a viable alternative to painting. 

Due to difficulties of preservation, light levels and so on, drawings are not often displayed in traditional gallery settings so many visitors will never have had the opportunity to study such drawings first hand.  Drawings are intimate; they are meant to be held and admired.  You almost want to press your nose to the glass and be drawn into Watteau’s intense chalk lines.  They were never intended to be seen extravagantly framed and high on a wall. I know am not the tallest of people even in the four inches heels I clacked around the gallery in this morning but I still had to stand on tiptoes (a difficult job as you may imagine) to study the drawings properly.  Whereas I appreciate that the curators had no choice but to display the drawings on the wall (and considering this, they are hung beautifully) my discomfort with the exhibition could have been resolved by a panel explaining the purpose of these works and the function of drawing in the 18th century.  Although I have yet to read it, I imagine the exhibition catalogue will develop this.


Beware, although the Watteau exhibition is arranged chronologically, unusually for the RA, the route is anti-clockwise and anyone not studying the room numbers may find themselves in the final room before having to skulk backwards after heading off in the wrong direction.  Ooops! 

The exhibition begins showing the early diversity of Watteau’s subjects, moving onto the influence of the Old Masters in his works.  Drawing lay at the heart of Watteau’s creative purpose and he used many of his drawings as a visual archive when composing his paintings.  Although he did execute many drawings for their own sake, many of the figures recur in his paintings and these sheets acted as inspiration and a library of resources and poses.  The wall cards refer to the comparable paintings or surviving engravings but only a handful are illustrated meaning these references are often redundant, except to 18th century scholars. 

The exhibition continues with the artist’s exploration of Persians and Savoyards, his fêtes galantes, nudes, and then his later, more muted and reflective, works.  There is a clear evolution in Watteau’s drawing style which the exhibition successfully shows.  We can see how his earliest works used red chalk alone before he gradually incorporated black, then added white to the mix around 1715.  Although, this trois crayons technique became synonymous with Watteau and he was an important exponent of this technique, he wasn’t actually most prolific in this medium and the curators highlight this well. 

As this exhibition shows, Watteau was an innovative draughtsman.  His works are spontaneous, energetic, rich and powerful.  In the studies where he moves around the figure, focusing on the face from a multitude of angles, his delicate handling of the chalk captures subtle nuances of expression and amazing contrasts.


In my opinion his drawings easily equal, and in some instances even surpass, his paintings (although I have yet to see the Wallace Collection exhibition).  Although Watteau lived until only 37, the impact he had on the art world lasted well beyond his lifetime.  The exhibition is really a delight and I, for one, am looking forward to my second visit.


5 Responses to “Watteau Drawings at the Royal Academy: delightful but confusing”

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