top of page

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Studies of Actors, a Pair of Hands and a Fragment of an Arabesque (c.1711).

 Photo © Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. 

Watteau’s Drawings: Virtuosity and Delight

at the Royal Academy


By Anna Leung

Antoine Watteau died in 1721 at 37, the same age at which Raphael died. Two years earlier he had travelled to London to consult with Richard Mead, a highly reputable doctor and an admirer of his work. As well as searching for a remedy for his tubercular condition he may well have thought to rescue his finances. Like many others in France, where Louis XV had adopted the Scotsman John Law’s economic system in order to stimulate an economy worn down by the successive military adventures of his predecessor, the Sun King Louis Quatorze, Watteau had been caught up in the failure of Law’s speculative financial system that, culminating in the Mississippi Bubble, was the first casualty of boom and bust economics based not on gold but on paper credit in the emerging modern period. 


Indeed what strikes us as we wander through this exhibition is the modern feel imparted by Watteau’s sketches, which he suggestively referred to as his ‘pensees a la sanguine’ [Editor’s Note: This phrase should be translated in this context as ‘thoughts in red chalk,’ though it could also mean ‘bloody thoughts’]. At the same time as they capture a world of social encounters they also reveal an interior world that belongs exclusively to Watteau.  Interestingly this quite probably would not have seemed to be the case were we to have first encountered Watteau’s paintings at a separate companion exhibition at the Wallace Collection. Contrasted with Watteau's highly decorative paintings in which he excels in translating silk and textile into paint, his drawings have an intimacy and an interiority that is modern. The drawings and paintings seem to present very different facets of Watteau's character. Perhaps less elegiac the drawings probe more deeply into the human condition and suggest a universal correspondence that transcends social and cultural differences. A whole new genre, the ‘Fetes Galantes’, had to be invented by the Academy in order to legitimise and make comprehensible his wayward paintings – since they seemed to be about nothing, i.e. did not have a subject that fitted in with the normal genre classifications. As we shall see Watteau epitomised a new vision that prefigures elements of the modern. Being recognised as a member of the Academy obviously did not preoccupy Watteau unduly, for it took several years before he was able or wanted to present his obligatory reception piece Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera in 1717, and though eventually accepted he never became an Academy man. This lack of enthusiasm on his part may be traced to the fact that earlier, in 1709, he had only won the second place in the Prix de Rome competition, thereby forfeiting the possibility of becoming much more of a main stream academic artist by studying  renaissance and baroque masters in situ in Italy. But Watteau was from the beginning marked out by birth and class to take on the role of a proto-modern outsider. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Nude Man Kneeling, Holding some Fabrics in his Right Hand (c.1715-16).

Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo © RMN / Thierry Le Mage. 

His Life


Born in Valenciennes in 1684 Watteau was Flemish rather than French, for Valenciennes had only just been annexed to France in 1678. This in itself would have contributed to his outsider status, since French was not his mother tongue and he may have spoken with a distinct Flemish accent. Moreover his background was working class; his father was a roofer and tiller. But by 1702 he was in Paris working first under Gillot, a contemporary artist specialising in theatrical costume and scenes from the commedia dell’arte (which was banned in 1697), and then with a reputable interior decorator, Claude Audran, who also happened to be the curator of the Palais de Luxembourg. Here Watteau would come into close contact with Rubens’s series of paintings on the life of Marie de Medicis, 1624, an important source of inspiration for him, as were Titian’s paintings. Throughout his short life Watteau remained a highly independent artist, though he was dependent on the good offices of his many loyal friends as he moved from one household to another. He never married, was well read and loved music above all. Many of his drawings depict musicians.


This independence applies to his art practice. Bound by neither state nor church, his new genre of painting coincided with the growing affluence of the bourgeoisie whose prominence had been abetted by Louis XIV’s appointing them to administrative positions in an effort to curb the power of the nobility. A new mercantile space opens up, and art becomes a luxury good no longer bound by the wishes of aristocratic patrons but offered for sale to anonymous buyers--a new public that reflects the democratisation of the arts. Up till this time in France, works of fine art had remained within the purview of the Academy, which sequestered them from commodification or commerce, viewing these as vulgar. Watteau was never part of this patronage system, and though he was supported by wealthy individuals, it was not their taste that determined his choice of subjects. We can glimpse here the beginnings of a contradiction that comes to define the 18th century. On one hand there is the emergence of a concept of aesthetics, on the other the increasing commodification of the art work. If the Kantian experience of beauty is based on ‘disinterested pleasure’, art’s autonomy viewed under the aegis of ethics, Watteau’s paintings lure us in with a highly interested (and even erotic) content. Watteau holds desire and aesthetic pleasure together for a short period. This seems to apply to his paintings, but does it apply in equal measure to his drawings?


Transition - the Regency


It is significant that Watteau’s artistic career spans the period of decline and dissolution of the Sun King’s absolutist power. That his power had been vested in his actual presence, and his body conflated with the body politic of France, is apparent from such court rituals as the King’s levee, etc. The war of the Spanish Succession, begun in 1701, was disastrous and exacerbated an already existing economic crisis brought on by unwise military ventures that resulted in the increase of unjust taxes, the debasement of coinage, a spate of natural disasters and repeated bad harvests. Finally the king suffered a personal tragedy in the death of his son, grandson and eldest great grandson; under the influence of a bigoted puritan wife he grew increasingly pious and intolerant. All distractions at the court were banished. As a result the courtiers, who had been to that point virtually prisoners in a gilded cage in which all sense of self was totally subservient to the monarch’s will, began to take flight from Versailles and set up alternative courts in Paris and its environs.  By the time the Regent, the Duc d’Orleans, who was to rule till Louis XV came of age in 1723, took up the reins of power after Louis XIV passed away in 1715, the courtiers, till then bound by strict protocol that demanded an inflexible form of etiquette, had fled from Versailles to the countryside around Paris, adopting the hedonistic life style Watteau captured in his Fetes Galantes. These intimate paintings were destined for intimate spaces given over to comfort rather than the coldly opulent splendour of Versailles. 


More than any other artist, Watteau embodied the transition that made way for the increasing commodification of the art work and with it a new public that gained in strength over the eighteenth century. His paintings are the polar opposites of the rational clarity demanded by an absolute ruler. The paintings of the Fetes Galantes are not simply figments of the artist’s imagination but reflect an attempt made by members of the aristocracy to create their own private centres of power. Donning theatrical costume, they continued to enact their social roles but according to a different scenario framed by the arbitrary rules of love and chance that were based not on emblems of power but on a newly discovered sense of subjective inner worth. In the Fetes Galantes the protagonists play a coded game regulated by the flicker of an eyelash or the opening or closing of a fan. These are no longer edifying history paintings that demand of the artist that the message is be totally comprehensible with no room for equivocation or doubt. Watteau’s paintings suggest multiple and ambiguous readings, especially when his figures resemble commedia dell’arte players, and even statues seem decidedly human and alive. No rational narrative, but rather an atmosphere of sensuous reverie is set up. Surrounded by an unkempt nature now no longer subjected to the rigid principles of geometric topiary, Watteau’s congregation of characters disport themselves in accord with the rulings of a whimsical god of love. It seems to have been Watteau’s landscapes that won the admiration of his contemporaries. Significantly, it is precisely this aspect that is absent from his drawings, in which he concentrates on the figure and leaves context to our imaginations, which is already a very modern procedure. While they constitute a catalogue of characters for his paintings, Watteau’s drawings exemplify a new concept of the aesthetic that, particularly because of his ability to capture the transience of a moment, is a true forerunner of modernism.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground, Leaning Forward (c.1717-18).

Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum, London.

The Drawings


It is the realism, rather than make-believe, of the drawings on display in the Sackler Wing realism that distinguishes them from academic drawings based on classical models. Watteau is dealing with ordinary people, not rhetorical ciphers whose facial expressions were subject to academic codification. Much scholarship has gone into relating figure drawings from Watteau’s sketch books to his paintings, and in some cases the curator has furnished us with the relevant reproductions. But the fact that the same figure or its mirror image is used more than once makes for difficulties. And when it comes to the matter of aesthetic valuation Watteau, it is recorded, saw himself as a greater draughtsman than painter. Posterity seems to have agreed, so that his drawings continue to be highly valued for their own sake. His paintings, on the other hand, have suffered over the years – it seems that his painting techniques left much to be desired. Consequently, they have not weathered well, while most of his drawings still retain their freshness and have lost little of their charm and delicacy of touch.




Watteau was not the first artist to use red chalk or even the three colour system for which he is famed. Leonardo is credited with the first use of red chalk, or sanguine, which derives its name by association with the colour of blood. Popular in the renaissance in the use of figure studies, its best known exponent was Michelangelo. The red chalk that comes in the form of short sticks that can be sharpened was made of hematite (iron) and clay in a wide range of tones and shades. As we see from these drawings, it can be used in a variety of ways. Stumped with a rag, it creates volume and lightens in colour; when dampened, it becomes darker; and sharpened, it can produce the most ephemeral and delicate of touches. Rubens, one of Watteau’s favourite artists, was a great exponent of this material and Watteau made copies from his sanguine drawings. Watteau started out using just the various tones of red and gradually extended his practice to different blacks, including graphite, and white, and was able to suggest a whole panoply of colour when using all three. Because Watteau did not date his work, it is difficult to gauge when he began to use all three colours, but the magistral portraits of the Persians and Savoyards inclines us to think it must have been around 1715 when a Persian delegation came to court and stayed about six months. In both cases, Watteau used black over red to accent a particular area, as in the hair of the Young Savoyard holding an Oboe with a Marmot Case slung across his Shoulder, c. 1715, or to summon up a shadow. He used white mainly for highlights or to suggest the delicate sheen of skin, but in the case of the three studies of the black boy in Studies of Eight Heads, c. 1715-16, he used it to accentuate the area around their heads so that they stand out from the page. Watteau restricted himself to these techniques, only very seldom adding a pale wash. Often it is impossible to tell which colour has been applied first. As his expertise increased, his figures or portraits tended to increase in size, taking up more of the space on each sheet, but it is again difficult to tell since he often added figures to existing sketches so that the images on a single page may belong to different periods.


Life and/or Theatre


One of the most salient aspects of Watteau’s drawings is the absence of setting. His figures sit on invisible chairs, kneel against invisible steps, or lean against invisible fountains or balustrades. There are very few in which Watteau has sketched in a background. In marked contrast to academic drawings, his figure studies are not of types that impose on the viewer a specific code of conduct. Instead, he attempts to capture the real life presence of ordinary people from all ranks of life, from Persian dignitaries to young shoeshine boys. In this he is close in spirit to the Enlightenment project. But he does not classify them according to their work. His soldiers, for instance, are not depicted in the thick of battle but rather off duty, relaxing or recovering from battles. His courtiers, actors and musicians may be rehearsing rather than performing. It is this crucial difference that is a feature of the aesthetic and beguiles us into trying to make a distinction between real life and art within the realm of performance and artifice which reveals as much as it conceals. That sincerity came to be much prized in this period, and with it the importance attached to subjectivity, is brought out in Watteau’s emphasis on the ordinariness of these figures captured on the pages of his sketch book, which he then used to create his paintings where they take on a very different life. As drawings, they communicate a marvellous sense of empathy unusual at the time, though one that comes to characterise the bourgeois centred art of Chardin and Boucher with their emphasis on family life. There is, however, a new relationship of parity between artist and model--a mutual respect that is totally devoid of the sentimentality that comes to characterise Greuze.


Perhaps the very nature of drawings, their seeming lack of permanence compared to paintings, lends them the very quality of melancholy and gentle wistfulness that Watteau, who knew death was imminent, was able to convey with reserve and mute tenderness. The kernel of what Watteau’s drawings can impart to us is that beauty is the hostage of death, but shines ever brighter in the knowledge of its ephemerality. They engage us with their fluidity and with an acute awareness of things passing. Watteau has the ability to transpose onto the page the moment of transition that seems to precede a movement or even the decision to move. However, the aesthetic dimension is hardly ever lost, and though he seems to include drawings from different periods on one and the same sheet he nearly always respects the whole page’s aesthetic autonomy and in this respect, as in many others, is a forerunner of the modern period. Watteau also knew that even if the artist of his time had been liberated from church and state, he was now subject to the impersonal forces of the market.


The exhibition Watteau: The Drawings is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and its companion exhibition, Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle, is at the Wallace Collection, London, from 12 March - 5 June 2011. 


© Anna Leung, April 2011


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

bottom of page