Tag Archives: Watteau

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.


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.


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