Review – Watteau: The Drawings. Royal Academy, London. 12 March – 5 June 2011. David R. Marshall

Watteau: The Drawings

Royal Academy, London. 12 March – 5 June 2020

Reviewed by David R. Marshall

This exhibition is organized for the Royal Academy and curated by Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat, and based on their 1996 catalogue of Watteau drawings. In his essay Prat points out that the number of drawings (90) is less than at the big Watteau exhibition of 1984-85, but that the selection is more focused and unproblematic. The bulk of the drawings are from the Louvre and British Museum, but there are a number from other collections not often seen. The drawings are displayed in the Sackler wing of the Royal Academy, already showing its age, with it’s weird open lift shaft between the exterior facades of two buildings, and gallery spaces that work well enough in a routine way. On a Monday lunchtime late in the season it was still comfortably busy.

Drawing exhibitions tend to be refined and conservative things; no high concepts or quirky ideas, just a swag of top-quality drawings and a lucid distillation of current knowledge on each drawing, and an equally succinct overview of the broader issues. This is one such. The essays are short but don’t waste a word. Prat’s essay on the technique is particularly useful, while Eidelberg’s essay on collecting Watteau drawings in England has the most new ground to cover. The main divisions are chronological: early works; copies after Old Masters; Savoyards and Persians; Fêtes Galantes; nudes; and later works. Unlike The Cult of Beauty or Jan Gossaert, there is an exact correspondence between catalogue and exhibition: the only difference is the relative scale of images gets a bit distorted in the catalogue. Such exhibitions tend to be short on spectacle, and the Claude drawings exhibition at the Louvre enlivened the display with a selection of paintings, which might have helped here. As it is, you had to go to the Wallace Collection for that.

The pleasure to be had from looking at Watteau drawings is like the pleasure you get from a concert performance that is wholly professional. Confident mastery of execution is everything, and one’s pleasure is destroyed if there is any faltering or hesitation. Watteau never misses a beat. This is particularly evident in the hands, which are always perfectly articulated, however sketchy they might be. (The exception that proves the rule is no. 23, Seated Persian Wearing a Turban, where the left hand is clunky.) The study of hands in different positions (no. 49, Ten Studies of a Left Hand) (Fig. 1) can therefore be taken as the keynote drawing.

The other striking, and pleasurable aspect of these drawings is the way they are wholly pictorial. It is not just that Watteau uses red and black chalk together: it is that you can see how the figures would appear in paint. (Which is all the more reason to insert a few choice example of paintings to help the viewer see this.) The two Mezzetins in no. 14 (Two Studies of Mezzetin and Pierrot) (Fig. 2) is a case in point. The dots, dashes and blobs on the trousers are the same ones that will appear in paint. Watteau skips over the sculptural form of folds in favour of the representation of the material of which they are composed. Sometimes a taste for the curious, abstract shapes that folds can assume does appear, as in no. 26, Persian Servant Carrying a Plate, Seen in Profile (Fig. 3), where there is a strange tubular fold behind the thigh. But this is not very common. More often he is interested in the masses that draperies form, and their dimpled surfaces. In no. 37, Two Studies of a Woman Seated on the Ground (Fig. 4), the right study conveys the shapeless voluminousness of a dress à la Watteau when the sitter does what the dress is not designed for: sitting on the ground in a Watteau pose. Watteau seems to enjoy subverting the aims of the dress designer in this way. In another drawing, no. 33, Woman on a Swing Seen from the Back (Fig. 5), the bulkiness of the hitched-up dress is well conveyed, and given a startling practicality in the way the feet are placed akimbo, currently useless but squarely ready to take her weight when she comes into land.

The masterpiece of this subgenre of reclining, bulkily dressed women is no. 59, Woman Seen from the Back Seated on the Ground, Leaning Forward (Fig. 6) Here it is less the bulky oddness of the dress that it conveyed – in fact the masses are quite elegant — but the way the pictorialized rendering is taken to an extreme by modelling the whole body with the parallel lines of the stripes of her dress. It is as if these have been projected onto a blank silhouette, with only a few black chalk marks to indicate the principal shadows.

In the section dealing with nudes there are two striking drawings, studies for the lost Autumn painted for Crozat (no. 40, Nude Man Holding a Bottle in Each Hand (Fig. 7), and no. 41, Satyr Holding a Bottle in Each Hand. The label and catalogue entry for no. 40 notes Caylus’ comment  that Watteau ‘having no knowledge of anatomy, and having almost never drawn a nude, could neither read one nor express one’, with the customary disclaimer that this is obviously not the case. But Caylus was right, because these men, a bit fleshy around the midriff, with the skin inclined to sag, seem devoid of any knowledge of the classical schema for the male body that was beaten into those artists who had an Academic training. As a result they are strikingly realistic, and again show an intense awareness of materials, in this case non-buffed up male flesh, that makes you wonder how he can convey this in a few strokes of red and black chalk.

The same realism comes through in the numerous studies of female heads. Sometimes one is jolted out of connoisseurial contemplation to realize that these are real people looking at you, often distinctive French or Flemish types: one of them looks like Gemma Jones taking a break from the Duchess of Duke Street (Fig. 8). The studies of Savoyards have this realism in a more obvious way. Conversely, some of the drawings after Old Masters are more tentative than they can appear in reproductions, especially the one after Domenico Campagnola (no. 35. Two Crouching Youths in a Landscape, after Domenico Campagnola) (Fig. 9).

In his head and shoulder studies Watteau clearly loved the high viewpoint, like Tintoretto before him, one that sets the head in profil perdu against the shoulders and against a bust tightly confined by the line of a bodice (no. 67. Four Studies of a Woman’s head no. 69, Four Bust Length Studies of a Woman …) (Fig. 10). Such studies as these, in spite of their  practical purpose, are almost always harmoniously disposed on the page, even when done at different period. There are none of those weird shifts of scale you get with Michelangelo, for example. The exception is no. 55 Crouching Child etc. (Fig. 11) where the disposition on the sheets generates strange Boschian monsters and Alice in Wonderland-like interactions.

© David R. Marshall 2011

Exhibition Website:

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