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Watteau drawings on exhibition at the Royal Academy.

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Thursday, 10th March 2011 – David Franchi

In the past the ability of drawing was wrongly considered a minor expression of the artist. However, it has been revalued and today we can enjoy extraordinary examples of work.

[photo:Two Studies of a Woman Seated on the Ground, c. 1715-16]

This is the case of the exhibition “Watteau: the drawings” at the Royal Academy Arts of London, from 12th March until 5th June 2011. It is the first major UK retrospective about the drawings of the French painter Jean- Antoine Watteau.

The exhibition contains over 80 works on paper, it is organised chronologically and looks at the development of Watteau drawing styles. Drawing is the core process of his work. The originality of his painting is matched by the brilliance of his drawings which are among the most extraordinary in Western art. Watteau preferred drawing to painting, finding difficult to convey in oil the propinquity he could achieve on paper with chalk, his favourite medium. He prized his sketches and kept them in bound volumes to be able to refer to them when painting as they were an essential source of inspiration.

For his ability to use red chalk in his body of work, Watteau has achieved a broad range of colour and tone. However, he is best known for his mastery of the “trois crayons” technique, the fine manipulation and expert balancing of red, black and white chalks. He made very little use of pen and ink and occasionally combined chalk with graphite, and also employed washes. 

Moreover, Watteau innovated the portraying as per the pleasant figures in poses but also for the variety of subjects of which some of his best known were sketched from the world of Italian comedy and ballet.

Jean-Antoine Watteau was born the 10th October 1684 in Valenciennes, a Flemish city, which in 1678 was annexed to France from the Spanish Netherlands. For all his life Watteau considered himself a Flemish. He worked as an apprentice for a local artist then moved to Paris when turned eighteen years old.

[Woman Wearing a Mantle Over Her Head and Shoulders, c. 1718-19]

 At the exhibition the first room, “Beginnings and Independence”, gives an immediate sense of the early talent of Watteau, though he was recognised as a master very lately, by the time he died. While working in the studio of Claude Gillot, in Paris, a painter known for his theatrical scenes, Watteau developed a taste for subjects from the Commedia dell’Arte an Italian form of theatre that would become one of Watteau’s lifelong passions together with the music. Therefore, in this room, is possible to see many portraits of actors, musicians, but also shops interiors another important subject for this artist.

The second room, “After the Old Masters”, focuses on the work of Watteau about history subjects dedicated to learn from Old Masters in order to perfect his own skills. Watteau felt a particular affinity with Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Campagnola and in this room the works on display show how wittingly Watteau interpreting and incorporating the lesson of the masters.

Very unusual, for that time, subjects are in the third room, “Persians and Savoyards”. A delegation from Persia arrived in Paris in 1715 and Watteau could produce some high quality studies. The same stylistic qualities can also be found in the series of the Savoyards, a population coming from the extremely poor region of Savoy – whose kings will become the last ruling dynasty of Italy ended with the Second World War. Every winter these mountaineers were looking for work in large cities. Generally the urban and rural poor were ignored as artistic subjects or represented in critical way. Watteau characterised them with dignity and humanity.

[Three Studies of Soldiers Holding Guns, 1715]


The fourth room, “Developing the fêtes galantes”, deals with the great invention of Watteau. Here are many examples of this genre, and studies about a variety of subjects, for instance the never shown before “Ten studios of a left hand”, or “Five studios of a woman’s bed”. Additionally, “Three studios of the bust of a black boy”, an unusual kind of representation, makes appreciate the Watteau technical ability in rendering the black skin pigmentation of the child. The invention of ‘fêtes galantes’ has given Watteau notoriety. It is a genre of small portraits depicting elegant people socialising in parkland settings.

 The angle of the fifth room, “Nudes”, is mainly on studies Watteau made for his academic paintings, particularly for ‘Spring’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Jupiter and Antiope’ demonstrating his competence in this genre, but also some erotic examples 

The last room “Final years” focus on the last part of Watteau life. Here notably the “Woman wearing a mantle over her head and shoulders” which has an expression of sadness and is even sombre a rare subject for Watteau.

In 1717 Watteau was finally elected a full member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Affected by tuberculosis, Watteau’s health deteriorate and he retread to Nogent- sur- Marne where he died on 18 July 1721, aged only 37.

Watteau influenced profoundly following generations of artists acquiring the spirit of the French Rococo and antedated the work of the Impressionists, and reaching a vast posthumous reputation. In the nineteenth century his influence enlarged. Watteau was cited in many artist works, including poets like Gautier and Verlaine, writers such as Stendhal or Thomas Mann, and even musicians as Debussy.

His brother Noël-Joseph Watteau (1689-1756) will be the father of painter Louis Joseph Watteau (1731-1798) whose son will be painter as well François Watteau (1758-1823).

The exhibition has been curated by Pierre Rosenberg, Académie Française, Président-Directeur of the Musée du Louvre, Louis-Antoine Prat, Chargé de mission, Département des Arts graphiques, Musée du Louvre and Katia Pisvin, Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Generously supported by Region Holdings, the exhibition comes together with other activities lectures, talks, schools and families programmes.

[photo- Royal Academy Arts of London]

Published for: www.italoeuropeo.co.uk

Direct link: http://www.italoeuropeo.com/entertaiment/arts/watteau-drawings-on-exhibition-at-the-royal-academy./


Written by davidfranchi

March 11, 2011 at 11:16 pm

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