Book Review -- Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France by Mary Vidal

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Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century France

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. 250 pp.; 47 color ills., 133 b/w. $50.00

Watteau scholarship has developed in the last two decades a remarkable momentum of its own. Moreover, with the exception of the polemic surrounding Jean Ferre's monumental but failed monograph (1972), the chief impulse stimulating research has not been connoisseurial but iconologic. The Watteau exhibitions of 1984-85 generated the usual amount of exhibition-related scholarship, crowned by a bulky catalogue and the two remarkable monographs by Marianne Roland Michel and Donald Posner. Symptomatic of the enormous growth of the literature on Watteau, and of the direction taken by this newly aroused interest, might be the fact that even such a relatively minor problem as that of the statue vivante present in some of his works was recently taken up by at least half a dozen shorter studies. The obvious limitations of iconographic procedures--Watteau's paintings seem to defy all attempts at definitively deciphering their topics--or of the always reiterated, but never satisfyingly substantiated, literary comparison with Marivaux have, however, stimulated the appearance of a new type of study combining art-historical methods with both a semiotic and a sociocultural attention to context. Jutta Held's little book on the Cytherea motif (1984) and Norman Bryson's chapter on the concept of reverie in his Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Rime (1981) showed the possibilities and the problems inherent in this approach. The book under review here has combined a certain pre-iconographic premise with these new methodological impulses (although Mary Vidal refers neither to Held's book nor on the whole to recent German scholarship), and has constructed a larger interpretative scheme based on the conviction that the concept of conversation lies at the core of Watteau's figural imagery.

The central thesis of the book is thus that aspects of conversational practices and customs, as described in the writings of French conversationalists from Montaigne onward and practiced in the Parisian salons of the 17th century, give meaning and cultural relevance to the comportment of Watteau's figures. In her first chapter, Vidal undertakes a thematic and visual reevaluation of some selected paintings in order to show that Watteau depicted conversation in a form both more extensive and penetrating than other painters of his time. Vidal then carries her argument through four main areas of investigation corresponding roughly to the structure of the book: the problem of the status of conversation in 17th- and 18th-century French society; the formative effects of conversation on the arts during this period; the attempts of Watteau to achieve an aristocratic status; and lastly, of course, the role of conversation in Watteau's visual universe of subjects and forms. The last problem is taken up both in the first chapter and in a closing, extensive analysis of the famous L'Enseigne de Gersaint.

According to Vidal, almost all fetes galantes should be interpreted from the viewpoint of the conversational theme. Watteau, she argues, accepted the high status of conversation within society, and he paid homage to it through his artful construction of discoursive situations and through the discreet but self-revealing conduct of his figures as they fulfill the overriding aim of aristocratic culture: a social definition and self-presentation based on aesthetic norms of bienseance. Vidal's concept of conversation is somewhat broad and includes not only the encounters in the fetes galantes and the theater scenes, but also military and even religious paintings like the Repos de la Sainte Famille.

After examining the conversation as a theme within Watteau's paintings, Vidal moves on to consider it as an aesthetic equivalent to Watteau's works themselves. …