The Pick - Watteau: The Drawings

March 24, 2011

Watteau: The Drawings

Sackler Galleries, Royal Academy of Art, London

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is best known for paintings of dreamy mythological scenes and aristocratic picnics known as fêtes galantes, which conjure up a world of shy flirtations and stolen kisses. Yet the roughly 90 drawings assembled for this exhibition reveal not only his uncanny skill but his range of subject matter. Fluent imitations of religious scenes from Old Masters rub shoulders with mild erotica; an interior of a draper's shop, probably intended as an outdoor sign, is juxtaposed with vignettes from the stage and of kittens or soldiers relaxing.

Single pages are crammed with linked sketches of slowly rotating heads or hands splayed in every possible position, many of them unlikely to have been used in any full-scale paintings. A luscious nude Spring, the Roman god Bacchus and brawny servants holding up bottles of wine were used for four oval pictures of the seasons, commissioned by a rich banker for his drawing room. An impressionistic image of hunting dogs and dead game was probably intended as a study for an arched decorative panel.

Watteau started out using only red chalk, but his mature technique relied on a combination of red, black and white on paper in tones ranging from cream to brown. Within these limits, he managed to achieve marvels of subtle colouring, as in his depiction of the skin tones of a small black boy.

Equally remarkable are two other series of figures drawn from life. When a delegation of Persians visited the court of Louis XIV in 1715, the painter was there to capture their exotic costumes, their swagger and pugnaciousness.

Much more ground-down and poignant are the Savoyard beggars and street traders who worked in Paris as knife grinders or chimney sweeps. Shoeshine boys have stools slung across their shoulders. Others scraped together what must have been a precarious living by carrying around marmots in boxes and showing them to passers-by for a small fee.

A portrait of an ageing woman kneeling by a baby in a cradle has a sharp, unsentimental pathos. Another, of a complacent Carmelite friar, has a mildly satirical air. Yet many of the fine drawings on display at the Royal Academy until 5 June evoke Watteau's characteristic mood of languorous pastoral charm. Some were indeed intended as sketches for finished paintings.

Musicians tune up or play flutes, violins and guitars. A man dressed as a gardener plucks at a blade of grass. Young women sit on swings or stretch out on the grass amid their elaborate billowing drapery. Everybody is dressed to impress with ruffs, berets, jaunty hats, elegant bodices and capes, with many discreetly showing off their finery. A pair of dancers are caught forever in their momentary courtly gestures.

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