The Roofer’s Son: Watteau at the Met
Watteau, Music, and Theater
September 22 to November 29
Metropolitan Museum of Art
European Paintings Galleries, 2nd floor
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212 535 7710
What kind of people love the paintings and drawings of Antoine Watteau? I think of them listening to Nick Drake and knowing every Alan Rudolph film. In fact, they are the present-day counterparts of the characters inhabiting Watteau’s paintings: young but already scuffed-up by life, dreamers of the exquisite woebegone. I don’t know how one can love Watteau without somehow making him one’s contemporary. For example, this premier painter of women’s necks seemed ever-present in the East Village of yore, with its hordes of women in nape-revealing punk haircuts. Watteau’s complex formula has a strong element of verité as it revels in artifice and seeps wistfulness. His sentiments, freshened by some readings on him, can seem eternally present.
From what has been handed down through scraps of half-reliable information, Watteau, the son of a rather disagreeable roofer, escaped from the Flemish hinterlands, and the gritty, striving narrowness that appeared to be his inheritance, to Paris as an apprentice decorative painter. After several masters, including the theatre painter, Gillot, he made his mark among the rich intelligentsia who were ultimately only of use to him as a springboard towards creating the imaginative concoction that established him, the fête galante, a discontinuous tableau of love, flirtation and posturing. In most works, playfully-costumed aristocrats pose as actors, musicians, or themselves in the foregrounds of private parks. An elusive, complicated character himself, Watteau moved from one friend’s house to the next, often pursued by avid collectors, and died at 36 of tuberculosis.
Anita Brookner describes him best in her book of essays, Soundings: “a drifter from Flanders…he fashioned a fairly melancholy world of high-class nomads, slightly overdressed, in settings visibly adopted from stage backdrops.” The current exhibition, “Watteau, Music and Theater” at the Met, brings together fifteen of Watteau’s paintings (but none of the large ones) and a number of drawings, and contextualizes Watteau’s overt themes historically.
It includes an example of a period guitar and bagpipe, or musette de cour, and engravings of theatres and costumed figures, as well as drawings and paintings by his teachers and followers. A small show, only taking up two rooms, it was ostensibly put together as one of the tributes to former director Philippe de Montebello. Watteau’s “Mezzetin” a depiction of a stocky balladeer in Commedia dell’arte garb, was one of de Montebello’s favorite museum holdings.
Most of his drawings here, like that of the head of man who is the model for Mezzetin, is done in white, red and black chalk on oatmeal-colored, textured paper. The drawings have to be some of the most beautiful ever made, and define what a drawing is, particularly in relation to painting. They simultaneously capture light and movement, describe what is being observed, and reorders the surface with a repertoire of decorative marks. Watteau kept his drawings in albums he took with him as he moved from place to place and worked up his figurative paintings from these studies. He is yet another artist who had his more salacious works on paper destroyed as he neared death.
Among the paintings, there is an early, stiff version of figures poised before the island of Cythera, the theme of which he created two later versions that are known as his summary masterpieces. As one can easily move in this show from earlier to later work, recurring features and developments crop up. It occurs that the earlier paintings are fairly direct transcriptions of theatre scenes: Watteau summoned up the equivalent of footlights to distinguish figure from background in such paintings as “Love in the French Theater” where the foreground figures seem illuminated from a source just below the implied proscenium. Later works, such as the Met’s “The French Comedians” seen nearby, are effulgent, bathed in a silvery, Cézanne-like allover-ness.
Brookner also wrote a monograph on the artist. In it, she speculates that had Watteau lived longer, his paintings and the figures in them would have gotten larger, as they were beginning to, and that he may have gone on to different subjects. The drawings seem to anticipate this also, as they are never crabbed, the way the figures in early paintings sometimes are or overly caught up in detail. This seems a fairer way to approach Watteau, to take his measure with the historical facts available and offer formal analysis, which is admittedly, the primary purpose of a monograph, than one of the other books I have been reading about Watteau, “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and his World” by the art critic Jed Perl.
Perl’s book is personal and belletristic, and has a misleading title, because it is much more Perl’s acculturated, canonical world we get than than Watteau’s. Samuel Beckett, Henry James and Serge Diaghilev make appearances, but not one living artist is mentioned in the book. He feels it necessary to mention a bad one act play called Behind the Watteau Picture that was performed briefly in Greenwich Village in 1917 or tries to situate young Katherine Hepburn as a Watteau character but does not dare mention Karole Armitage’s punk ballet, “The Watteau Duets” that premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985.
Perl speculates that Watteau is the first painter to depict bohemians, and it made me consider that the most fitting comparison to Watteau among contemporary artists is Nan Goldin. In the mid-1980’s around the same time as the Watteau retrospective in Washington (Gersaint’s shop sign and the Voyage to Cythera came to Met for a month afterward) was the frequent occurrence in clubs of Nan Goldin and her photographic slideshow that became “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” with its most recent soundtrack of old and new pop music. Thinking back on these images of Goldin’s languorous, embracing and lollygagging consorts, all very visually self- aware, slyly exhibitionistic and doomed, the conceptual gap from Watteau to the present seems to once again narrow considerably.