Watteau at the Wallace: is that all of it?

24 Mar

To coincide with the exhibition of Watteau drawings at the Royal Academy, the Wallace Collection has jumped on the bandwagon and pulled together an exhibition of their own Watteau paintings.  

Even though I’d read all the ‘bumph’ beforehand, I was still somewhat disappointed to find only one room of Watteau’s – I expected more.  The Wallace term this exhibition a ‘redisplay’ of these ‘great canvases’ and, truly, this is all it is – they have been moved from one side of Hertford House to another. 

Image via http://arts-extra.ft.com/

Esprit et Vérité is in two parts: the upstairs exhibition has 10 paintings by Watteau (2 by other artists) gathered together in one gallery.  Downstairs examines Watteau’s influence on his contemporaries showing a collection of works that were all owned by Jean de Julienne, Watteau’s publisher and one of France’s greatest collectors. 

Image via www.culture24.org.uk

The relationship between Watteau and Jean de Julienne is hugely significant and shows a key moment in the development of French eighteenth-century paining and patronage.  Despite a relatively short career, there can be no doubt that Watteau altered the course of French painting and drawing, revitalising the Baroque style as well as inventing the fête galante – a combination of fantasy and pastoral compositions where fashionable contemporaries converse with quirky stage characters. 

There is no denying that this is a small exhibition and the Wallace are taking advantage of Watteau being in vogue this year.  The catalogue states it is a rare opportunity to see this range of works – but they are normally on display anyway so this seems a rather bizarre publicity hook!

Image via www.wallacecollection.org

Of course, the Wallace’s best Watteau painting, La Toilette, takes pride of place.  The English title A Lady at her Toilet is rather misleading – were you expecting a painting of a lady on the loo?  Well, in fact, it’s a buxom woman getting washed and dressed for the day.  This was actually a risqué painting for its time – considered titillating and erotic.  Apparently, Watteau later repented for such ‘pornography’ and ordered that this, and other such works, should be destroyed on this death.  Luckily for us, his wishes were ignored (as are the wishes of so many dead artists – look at Turner).  This painting really shows Watteau’s forward-thinking, taking female nudes away from their normal depictions as nymphs, goddesses into domestic environments, ordinary settings.

Image via http://arts-extra.ft.com/

When Watteau died of tuberculosis in his 30s, de Julienne took responsibility for his works and five years after his death, he published a volume of engravings after Watteau’s drawings.  A second volume followed two years later and, a full seven years after that, came the two volumes of plates after the paintings.  His endeavours and perseverance ensured the artist’s place in history.

If, like me, you saw the RA exhibition first, you may have noticed that some of the figures have migrated directly from the drawings.  The same figures are reformatted over and over again.  The drawings were rarely preparatory and often Watteau just painted directly onto the canvas, creating new scenes as he went along. 

Image via http://arts-extra.ft.com/

The paintings on display are wistful, almost melancholic at times.  I’m not going to analyse the paintings; this, you must do when you visit but as you become immersed in Watteau’s world, feel the pervading sense of transience and his constant awareness of the passing of time.

One nice touch is that the exhibition booklets are in in both French and English.  Perhaps this is a cleverly designed tool to allow us to practice some French if you find there aren’t enough paintings to fill your time.

 Image via http://arts-extra.ft.com/

Watteau is obviously a tremendous painter but, for me, it is hard not to prefer his drawings.  They took my breath away.  Although this exhibition is not the most exciting, it is free as is admission to the whole collection at Hertford House.  It is one of London’s gems and who would ever object to ambling past all those lovely shops, across Manchester Square to the Wallace Collection to admire some eighteenth-century masterpieces.    

Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle is on display until 5th June 2011.


4 Responses to “Watteau at the Wallace: is that all of it?”

  1. Freddie May 31, 2011 at 6:14 am #

    Agreed. After the long toil of walking from the RA I had expected more.

    I love the Wallace, but it was a bit over-hyped. Having seen the catalog was £25 I expected rather more.

    The RA exhibition was fascinating, but after the first 20 sketches or so I found it rather repetitive. Yes, he was an amazing master of finely pointed red chalk, but I feel they misjudged the display. It was hardly crowded out, and the Wallace attracted very few while I was there.

    Thank you for the article though, I wish I had read it before I travelled down from Suffolk!

    • chloenelkin May 31, 2011 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks for your comment – I do know what you mean about the RA and it’s a shame the show hasn’t attracted more crowds as the works are certainly worthy of queues when properly displayed. I’m pleased you enjoyed the article, do keep reading and keep letting me know your thoughts.

      I hope you enjoyed your day in London despite the long journey and slightly disappointing exhibitions.

  2. Freddie May 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Don’t get me wrong. I fell in love with Watteau’s drawings nearly 40 years ago – but that was just slides and books where they were rather enlarged.

    Although it was fascinating to see them life size at the RA I did get rather bored with seeing how he recycled his sketchpads – adding newer more intricate drawings to earlier pages of ‘proofs’ – something I had not realised before.

    But how could one not enjoy London last Saturday, with the Wallace, RA and Nat Gall (to name but three)? And with all those exuberant Barcelona fans – and that was before they had won!

    • chloenelkin May 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

      Yes, he often re-used paper and re-worked sketches as he devloped his visual vocabulary and built up the archive of images. He’s a fascinating artist.

      I quite agree about London – there are always wonderful things to see and do with interesting people thrown in along the way.

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