Antonie’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World by Jed Perl
Nowadays there is a tendency for art writers to respond to pictures in highly personal terms. To cite another marvelous book, by Perl’s political opposite, Tim Clark’s recent book on Poussin associates the woman in Landscape with Man Killed by a Snake, with his own mother. The meaning of art, many writers believe, is what it means to us personally. Although I myself find Perl’s and Clark’s books engaging, I doubt that such determinedly subjective commentary provides the best way to understand historically distant artists. When Perl discusses Walter Pater’s self-consciously fictional essay “A Price of Court Painters” (1885), he seeks a precedent for his own analysis. But where Pater uses fantasy to reveal the visual qualities of Watteau’s art, Perl in effect treats these images as mirrors in which he finds reflected his life and intellectual interests. The most revealing commentary on Antonie’s Alphabet appears in a book Perl doesn’t mention, Norman Bryson’s Word and Image (1981). Reverie, Bryson writes, “is the typical form of the Watteau literature.” But where Bryson offers a plausible explanation of why these pictures inspire reverie, Perl engages freely in Watteauesque fantasy, as if he had entered the world of the art he loves. When at the end of the book, he associates Watteau’s art with his first experience of painting, the woodwork in his grandparents’ Brooklyn house, unable to envisage this “down-market Cythera” (p. 202), at this point I knew that I had lost him.
Jed Perl Antonie’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 207pp. $25 (cloth) (ISBN 978-0-307-2662-0)