As I was passing through London on my way back to New York I checked the local gallery listings to see what was on. What a nice surprise to find the first British retrospective of drawings by Jean Antoine Watteau on view right now at the Royal Academy of Arts. Now I am not a connoisseur of old master drawings, but Watteau is special and I couldn't pass up this opportunity to learn more about the artist and his work.
Watteau was born in 1684 to a roof tiler and his wife in Valenciennes, France, an area recently ceded from Flanders. A precocious child, he was studying art in Paris by the the age of eighteen and worked as a commercial artist to practice his craft and hopefully catch the eye of a wealthy patron. His early works included drawings of barber's and draper's shops and a series of fashion plates that were reproduced in print.
The early 1700's marked the final years in the reign of King Louis XIV and the more relaxed period of the French Regency. For the aristocracy, it was an era of more lighthearted pursuits and this was reflected in the art. Watteau earned his reputation by creating a totally new pictorial genre, the fête galante, a spirited portrayal of the upper classes engaged in fun and games usually in a garden or other outdoor setting. Watteau became a master of this form, often incorporating bits from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte and depicting his patrons in Arcadian scenes that implied a harmony between man and nature.
Despite what might be considered frivolous subject matter today, Watteau was by no means a dilettante and his skill as a draftsman remains unparalleled. His early red chalk drawings are exquisitely rendered and he later perfected a technique called trois crayons (three pencils) that involved drawing with a mix of red, black and white chalks often with gouache highlights. In fact, Watteau is probably far better known for his drawings than his oil paintings and his works on paper are coveted by collectors.
Watteau took his inspiration from modern life, although he occasionally drew from history and the Old Masters. A 1715 visit by a delegation from Persia to Louis XIV at Versailles presented a wealth of new material for Watteau who portrayed these exotic guests with great attention to detail. He applied the same care to his depictions of Savoyards, a group of people who came down from the mountains of Savoie during the winter to try to earn a meager living in the cities. In a rare show of sympathy to these indigent people, Watteau focused his depictions on their dignity and humanity rather than their sorry circumstances.
In 1717 Watteau was commissioned to design four oval panels on the theme of the seasons to decorated the dining room of the collector Pierre Crozat. Although unschooled in sketching anatomy, Watteau quickly became very proficient in his drawings of nudes, so much so that he personally destroyed his notebooks before he could be decried as immoral. The drawings that survive show an intimate connection with the models and a sensuality in their portrayal that might very well have been construed as wanton in the early 18th Century.
Later that year Watteau was finally accepted as a full member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture but his success was fleeting. Suffering from tuberculosis and left penniless by a bad business deal, Watteau died at the age of 37 in 1721. His life was short but his influence lived on in the work of such painters as Boucher, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Picasso. This exhibition is a fitting tribute to Watteau's superb eye and technical proficiency and a wonderful snapshot of life in the time of The Sun King.