The Royal Academy has redeemed itself.
“Modern British Sculpture,” an exhibition that opened there in January, is eccentric, sprawling and hard to comprehend (I’m still trying to work out what Queen Victoria is doing in the middle of it). “Watteau: The Drawings” is the opposite: wisely selected, perfectly mounted and crammed with beautiful things, it’s just about the best show of the year so far in London.
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was among the greatest of French painters. Indeed, a good deal of what you might think of as characteristically French in art -- lightness, elegance, grace, a bittersweet sense of life -- begins with him.
Right from the beginning, Watteau’s drawings -- almost 90 are on display in the show -- have been considered the best of his work. He had an amazing ability, using red, black and white chalks to catch the subtle nuances of things: a glance, the fall of a woman’s dress, a gesture, the gleam of a naked body. In a few strokes of chalk, he could show you not just what something looked like, but how it felt.
It seems he drew in a sketchbook constantly, and without any particular picture in mind. When he came to make a painting, he selected from this image bank, sometimes years after making the drawing. It long has been believed that when he was received into the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, a category of art had to be invented to describe what he did, the “fete galante.” There’s a scholarly disagreement as to whether that’s true. It doesn’t change the fact that most of Watteau’s pictures are of people hanging around outdoors doing nothing specific.
They exchange amorous glances, listen to music, maybe dance or just stand around. In other words, these are paintings with little in the way of a formal subject such as Biblical events or classical mythology. These are pictures of parties. The basis of them was his drawings. Effectively, Watteau was collecting glimpses of passing life on paper, then collaging them together into compositions. Not surprisingly, the original glimpses themselves -- the drawings -- are fresher and more delicate.
His paintings can be terrific too. Those wanting to compare and contrast can make a short journey through west London to the Wallace Collection, which has one of the finest groups of Watteau oils. Among them is “Lady at Her Toilet” (c. 1717-19), a rare and openly erotic, painting of the nude. A French style of sexiness, elegantly flirtatious, seems to begin with Watteau.
The Wallace’s Watteaus have been rehung with a couple of loans, and there’s also an exhibition, “Esprit et Verite: Watteau and His Circle,” focusing on the painter’s friend and patron, Jean de Jullienne. This man, a textile tycoon, was the Charles Saatchi of early 18th-century Paris: a wealthy collector who was also a promoter of contemporary art.
This show reconstructs de Jullienne’s collection, and considers how Watteau fitted into it. He came out of a tradition, of course, or rather several: Rubens, Venetian art, Dutch genre painting were influences. Still, there was something quietly revolutionary about him too. Watteau’s work was all about his own intuitive feelings and impressions. That’s quite modern.
“Watteau: The Drawings” is at the Royal Academy, supported by Japan Tobacco International and Region Holdings; “Esprit et Verite: Watteau and His Circle” is at the Wallace Collection. Both exhibitions run through June 5. Information: http://www.wallacecollection.org and http://www.royalacademy.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)