RA Magazine Spring 2011
Issue Number: 110
Watteau’s drawings open a window into the soul of the artist, and reveal how he thought about art. Painter Tess Jaray RA considers key works in the exhibition and explains how he conjures a whole world out of only three colours
Jean-Antoine Watteau, 'Five Studies of a Woman's Head, One Lightly Sketched', c. 1716-1717 The difference between looking at a painting and at a drawing is perhaps like looking at a person dressed in their best clothes, in contrast to how they look when they are wearing nothing. In a painting, artists can separate themselves from the world. Colour, and the stuff of paint, are weapons of distancing as well as of enticement, and these are used by artists to convey experiences, thoughts and feelings that they have decided to present. But with a drawing, artists are undressed and defenceless. They cannot hide behind a drawing. Drawing is a reaching out and that cannot be done without expressing something of the spirit.
I thought I knew the work of Watteau. The fêtes galantes, the glowing colours of his costumed figures, the air of artifice, and of frivolity and enjoyment. This is what I had seen before. But behind the gaiety and the felicity of the paintings lies something else: something wistful, solitary, mournful.
Some artists connect with the world only at a tangent: they do not express what they themselves are, but find in art an ideal that is absent from their own lives. Watteau, who had suffered an impoverished childhood, may have found great comfort and an escape from the harsh reality of his background – and indeed his own solitary and reclusive nature – in depicting the fantasies of his painterly subject matter. But there is not the levity that we see in Fragonard or Boucher. Watteau’s spirit of melancholy breaks through in the paintings. It is as though he is being deeply serious about frivolity; for surely a frivolous nature cannot depict frivolity?
The drawings are different. It has been said that Watteau preferred his drawings to his paintings. He referred to them as his pensées à la sanguine and bound them in albums and kept them for himself. Many artists prefer to hold on to their best work, and are happy to let go the lesser. I can understand this.
Watteau’s drawings possess many qualities shared by other artists, certainly his heroes, Titian and particularly Rubens. Watteau also used ‘earth’ materials – in his case only red, black and white chalks, chalks which were hacked from a lump of rock that had to be the right density, then sharpened and shaved to a point. There is something wildly romantic about this: direct, from earth to paper, from heart to hand, to be able thus to achieve an incredible immediacy with the material.
But there is much that is different from those masters: nothing at all in his drawings is casual; they are not sketchy, but very deliberate in the way they are composed on the paper. In Watteau’s drawings you feel that pleasure becomes almost an object. In Seated Woman (c.1717-18) he explores in depth his love of stripes. In some drawings the stripe and the line are the same, that is to say, they describe something simultaneously, with great economy. In this drawing the broad stripes of the dress are described through alternating red and black chalk, while the stripes of cloth themselves are rendered through striped marks. This drawing demonstrates the power of Watteau’s geometry: the dress explodes like a sun, and is prevented from chaos only by his placing of the hands at the centre; they hold the folds together, so that the ‘centre does hold’.
Deploying only red and black chalk, not even with touches of white, Watteau nevertheless gives the impression he has used every existing colour in the world. Here you really see his response to the limitation of his materials: the way the chalk sits on the handmade paper, picking up the minutest detail of any irregularities. The paper lightly catches the pigment, so that everything comes together in a perfect marriage of surface and chalk.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, 'Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground, Leaning Forward', c. 1717-1718 I believe that Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground, Leaning Forward (c.1717-18) is one of the greatest drawings in the pantheon. It is certainly in the private Museum of Great Drawings that I keep in my head. It holds in itself everything that might be asked of a drawing: the balance of simplicity and complexity perfectly expressed. The whole celebrating the graceful drapery with the lightest of touches; the stripes of the gown revealing – so subtly and yet so clearly – the form of the body underneath. Each line, each stripe glowing, edgy, observed, grounded, yet simultaneously ready to fly away in its lightness. The ‘shorthand’ with which the meeting of the gown and sleeve of the blouse are described – adding the smallest touch of decoration to set off the simplicity of the whole. Painters are always speaking about the ‘moment frozen in time’. In this drawing you see those moments embodied in opposites: movement and stillness, arrogance and vulnerability, clarity and intimacy.
Watteau shows us a vast range of visual experience. How, for example, in Seated Persian Wearing a Turban (1715) the personality is evoked through fine observation and depiction of dress – he is showing us how clothes maketh the man, how we hide behind externals.
In his drawings of heads and hats and hair in Four Studies of a Woman’s Head, (c.1716-17) the geometry is so pure in form that it makes one think of the perfect form of a bird’s egg, where a sphere becomes pointed at one end. And, in the studies of the various ways the head sits on the neck, it is striking how he conveys, through line rather than shading, the expressiveness of subtle changes of mood.
We cannot know precisely what effect his consumptive illness had on his work. But there is a febrile intensity to the quality of his line that may be, in part, explained by his awareness of the proximity of death. In his drawings we glimpse a desire to avoid any approximation of form or subject, to get as close to the thing as possible. No falsity or lying. Nothing ever just for effect.
For a great artist, the precise nature of a line is a matter of life or death. The eye and the heart are as one in a drawing in a way that can never be the case with a painting, where the mind plays a greater part.
One might go further and say that the eye and the heart are bypassed and, through the hand, the mark becomes a direct route to the spirit – his particular spirit – which can be explained only in the way the mark presents it.
Drawing is the link, and sometimes the chain, between an artist and the world. And, possibly, it also connects artists to each other, as well as to history. After all, we know that drawing has not ‘improved’ since cave paintings, only our perception of it has changed over the centuries.
Watteau died on the 18 July, 1721, aged 37.
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