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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. 

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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. 

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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!

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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