TOP DRAWER; Watteau's Exquisite Red, Black and White Chalk Sketches Elevated the Art of Drawing and Gave It the Power to Match Paint EXHIBITIONS OF THE WEEK
Byline: Brian Sewell
WATTEAU: THE DRAWINGS The Royal Academy, W1 WATTEAU AND HIS CIRCLE Wallace Collection, W1
IHESITATE to write of Watteau without first establishing the English pronunciation of his name -- Wotto, as in motto, or Varto, as (more or less) in French? As, like Don Quixote's quixotic quixotry, an adjective and other English words were long ago derived from his name -- Watteauish and several terms for women's dress (as in the painting below) -- it seems sensible and unassuming to call Quixote Kwiksot (as we all did before pretentious Americans discovered him) and Watteau Wotto, unless the circumstances are academic or international.
Two exhibitions devoted to the lamentably short-lived Jean-Antoine Watteau -- in 1721 he died of tuberculosis at the age of 37 -- have opened in London, at the Wallace Collection and the Royal Academy. In this wellplanned coincidence they complement each other, but I am inclined to suggest that the order in which we see them is important, for at the Wallace we see something of the circumstances of the art market in Watteau's day and his response to it as a painter painting pictures to sell, while at the Academy he is presented only as a draughtsman working solely for himself and in a private state of mind, seeing, recording and hoarding images for self-instruction and re-use. In terms of invention the drawings preceded the paintings and logic suggests that we should inspect them first, but they are of such a wide range of subjects, and technically so inventive and extraordinary, that to have fresh in the mind's eye both the end to which Watteau put them and the background of his employment and patronage helps us to see the whole jigsaw before we enjoy the parts.
In its modest exhibition rooms in the basement, the Wallace pays homage to Jean de Jullienne, born in 1686, two years younger than Watteau but his much longer-lived (until 1766) and rich patron, dealer, publisher of posthumous engravings and the guardian of his reputation. It offers only a glimpse of his collection but in doing so demonstrates how swiftly a young man three centuries ago could accumulate paintings of museum standard before there were museums; the Louvre in Watteau's time was not a public gallery but he could have seen any number of masterpieces, true and false, in the houses of patrons and the stock-rooms of art dealers (this was true of London too). How false, in the case of Jullienne, is demonstrated by wretched paintings that even then were slipping in and out of the canon of genuine Rembrandts, and a landscape of frightful absurdity executed with all the subtlety of gros-point embroidery, thought by Jullienne to be by Rubens. How true is demonstrated by a big and handsome landscape by Salvator Rosa (called Salvatorosa in his inventory), and Caspar Netscher's Lacemaker with a quiet hint of Vermeer about it. The most important painting, however, borrowed from Edinburgh, is by Watteau himself, Fetes Venitiennes, of 1717-19 (it is rarely possible to date precisely anything by Watteau).
Of all the paintings in this combined exercise, Fetes Venitiennes is most relevant in the context of the drawings shown at the Academy, for in the handling of paint with very fine brushes it most closely resembles Watteau's technique as a draughtsman -- he is, indeed, drawing with fluid paint, the scintillating brushwork echoing all the devices and mannerisms of the chalks employed in his mature preparatory studies. With this painting in mind, many of the drawings in the Academy immediately demonstrate Watteau's purpose in making them; it is not that they were specifically used in this painting but that they formed a repertoire of generic images that he could either recall or turn to in the albums in which they were bound. The oriental figure on the left, for example -- identified by the curator as Watteau's friend, the painter Nicholas Vleughels, with whom he was living at the time -- reflects the drawings of Persian ambassadors and their servants made by Watteau in Paris in 1715, perhaps as long as four years earlier. …