Memories of Watteau were important to those who knew him. Thirty-seven when he died of tuberculosis in 1721, he was the subject of seven 18th-century biographies, only two of them by strangers. Despite this desire to record his life we have only the barest facts about it and contradictory accounts of his personality. He seems to have been attractive, difficult and secretive, as well as ill. Yet it is easy to feel you know him, for his drawings are as revealing as diary entries. He collected them in albums, building paintings from the faces and poses gathered there. The results defy description; to detail their content is to make them sound like pictures in which lovers, musicians and dancers are merely vehicles for pretty conventionalities, as they are in the work of his followers Pater and Lancret. Watteau is infinitely more various, his observation of gesture and expression more subtle. His invention of fêtes galantes linked modern manners with ancient arcadias.

Drawings made from life tend to be recognisable as such; with the model before him only the most rigid draughtsman relies entirely on convention or fails to include some detail that memory would have missed. In Watteau’s case the relation between the mark and the thing seen is direct, untroubled and wonderfully inventive. A scribble or dab of red chalk turns into a fold in a coat or the shadow of a mouth. Men and women become present to you, revealed as your eye follows the path of Watteau’s hand. You sense the rub of chalk on paper. His friend Gersaint wrote that Watteau ‘was more satisfied with his drawings than with his paintings and I can affirm that in this he was not blinded by self-esteem to any of his defects. He found more pleasure in drawing than in painting. I have often seen him sulking because he could not render in paint the spirit and truth he could render with his pencil.’

The Comte de Caylus records in his Vie d’Antoine Watteau that

where he settled most easily was in the rooms I had in different quartiers of Paris which were used only for sittings with models, for painting and drawing. In these places … he and I … experienced the pure joy of youth, combined with liveliness of imagination in the delights of painting. I can state that Watteau, so sombre, melancholy, so shy and critical anywhere else, was here simply the Watteau of the paintings: in other words, the artist they make you imagine – delightful, tender and perhaps a bit of a shepherd.

You wonder how he stood in relation to the models who gathered in those rooms, dressed in costumes he had collected. Certainly their poses owe more to everyday life than to art. In Henry James’s story ‘A Most Extraordinary Case’ a veteran of the Civil War is slowly dying of an unnamed wasting disease, nursed by his aunt and in love with her ward. The women are setting out for a party:

She [the ward] forthwith appeared upon the threshold dressed in a crêpe of a kind of violent blue with desultory clusters of white roses. For some ten minutes Mason had the pleasure of being witness of that series of pretty movements and preparations with which women in full dress beguile the interval before their carriage is announced; their glances at the mirror, their slow assumption of their gloves, their mutual revisions and felicitations.

Watteau too noticed such things. Ignorant of the details of his life one imagines him a spectator, like James’s invalid: a sick man, distanced by disease from the desires and engagements of the healthy. Even when naked his pretty girls are not provocative as Boucher’s are. The situation is intimate, the relationship cool.

Antoine Watteau, ‘Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground, Leaning Forward’, c.1717-18

Antoine Watteau, ‘Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground, Leaning Forward’, c.1717-18

Look at the wonderful selection of his drawings to be seen until 5 June at the Royal Academy and you find his subject matter is more varied than memories of fêtes champêtres might suggest. What is common to all, save a quite small group of copies after old masters and a few decorative schemes, is that they show every sign of having been drawn from life. He had no experience of battles, but he knew soldiers and drew them – some laden with guns and knapsacks, some sprawled on the grass. He knew the poor. There are Savoyard street performers with their boxes for performing marmots. He even drew the odd animal – a couple of hunting dogs and two very scruffy kittens.

Above all he drew people. Men and women, musicians, children, the wrinkled old and the elegant young or exotics – members of a Persian embassy, for instance. Most of the early drawings are in red chalk, later he combined red with black and white. He was a master of this ‘three crayons’ technique – and used it on many sheets of groups of heads, often including one face seen from different angles.

He did clothes with such feeling for how they are worn that it seems he invented a style, although historians of fashion insist that is not the case. The women in flowing frocks and coats, the wrinkled stockings on the men’s calves, the figures identifiable by their costumes as being characters from the commedia dell’arte are all both theatrical and natural – their home is the greenroom rather than the stage. The long loose coats many of his women wear, pleated behind, spreading over a panniered skirt, the way their hair is gathered up to show the nape of the neck and topped with a little cap, their slim hands emerging from wide cuffs, the crisp folds of crushed silk contrasting with stiff bodices, the freedom of movement their poses imply, neither tightly buttoned into their clothes like Rubens peasants nor imprisoned in lavishly draped and embroidered court costumes – all of this shows dress recruited to define an ideal in which appearances reflect happiness.

After the Revolution the ascendancy in the arts of classical principles put Watteau’s work at a disadvantage. There is a story that when TheEmbarkation for Cythera, his Academy reception piece, was hanging in the study room of the Louvre it so displeased the students that it became a target for the bread pellets the draughtsmen used to clean up their drawings and the clay pellets of the sculptors. In the end it was rescued by the curator and put in the attic.

It is doubtless possible today to find his paintings frivolous. If you do, the drawings are the unanswerable response. From the first it was recognised, by Watteau among others, that they were to be appreciated and judged apart from his paintings (Rembrandt’s contemporaries gave his drawings the same status). The paintings are grand, complex, richer in narrative and emotion. But it is in the drawings that his extraordinary ability to record the subtlety of human expression and gesture is fully realised.

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