At the Royal Academy

Peter Campbell

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.

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