Exhibitions Lines of Beauty

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, April 2, 2011 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions Lines of Beauty


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Watteau: The Drawings

Royal Academy, until 5 June

Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian Paintings and Watercolours

The Courtauld Gallery, until 15 May

So far, 2011 has been a good year for drawing. The great Pre-Raphaelite drawings show at Birmingham is still fresh in my mind as I write this review of a superb Watteau exhibition at the Royal Academy (supported by Region Holdings) and a select survey of Victorian drawings and watercolours at the Courtauld. Watercolours are often described as a form of drawing, though they are in fact made with paint. So they occupy a hybrid category, allowing rather too great a laxity of definition, as can be seen in the Tate's current watercolour compendium. But there is no uncertainty about the Academy's show:

this is all drawings, and of a very high quality indeed.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is a key figure in the development of French 18th-century painting, an artist whose influence was felt all over Europe. He is particularly celebrated for inventing the fete galante, a kind of fashionable picnic scene which depicts elegant men and women at play in an idealised landscape. Watteau was an independent, melancholy spirit who had the gift of portraying the temporary quality of life. (Perhaps the TB that was to kill him so tragically young made him especially sensitive to time passing. ) In him we see the robust swirling Baroque style metamorphosing into the more refined Rococo, elegant but not frivolous, for he kept human nature firmly within his sights rather than lapsing into the whimsical and decorative.

He did this through the constant practice of drawing from life, intent on capturing a wide range of posture and expression which could be fed back into his paintings.

The Academy's show of some 80 smallish intricately worked drawings is hung in the Sackler Galleries and is worth spending time over. If the galleries get too crowded this will be difficult, and I suspect that this show will be extremely popular, so try to time your visit cunningly. There are far too many beautiful and moving drawings to mention without reducing this review to a mere list, but do notice the rare landscape with a view of a church in the first room, as a striking contrast to the human subject Watteau usually favoured. He was as adept at the single figure as he was at groups of people interacting: actors, musicians, barbers, drapers, soldiers; all fizzing with energy in red chalk, or in the trois crayons technique (red, black and white exquisitely balanced).

Watteau rightly prized his drawings and preserved them in albums, which is why there are so many in such good condition for us to enjoy today. This is a knockout show: memorable as much for its technical brilliance as for the psychological exploration of its subjects. Sheer delight.

To coincide with the Academy's exhibition, the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square has rehung its fine Watteau collection and redisplayed it in the West gallery upstairs. And in the basement exhibition area is another show, given over to Jean de Jullienne (1686-1766), a great collector and dealer, who did much to promote Watteau's posthumous reputation by commissioning all his work to be engraved. Both displays have substantial publications attached to them, and I hope to have space to return to a more detailed discussion of their individual merits later. …

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