The Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy of Arts is gloriously light and airy, so it's a shame it has to be so dark to protect the Watteau drawings presently on show there.It's a bit of a strain to see the artworks but necessary, I suppose.
Jean-Antoine Watteau was an elusive artist, and not much is known for certain about his life. He never signed or dated his work, and nothing of his handwriting remains. His career was short lived, he died at the young age of 37, and so there is a certain mysterious element to his work.
I felt touched by the RA’s new exhibition of this great French artist. They display a beautiful collection of delicate drawings, some that have never been shown before. Most of the works are studies, either created by Watteau to satisfy his own curiosity or in preparation for a painting. Even from the first few pictures it is clear to see what a fine draftsman he is - the drawings are original and sensitive and are done with great precision, though there is also a lovely sense of movement. Often the figures are placed independently on the page, with no background, this isolates the expression making it all the more powerful.
The drawings develop as his palette changes: greater description is possible when he begins to use black and white to complement the red chalk. Watteau depicted everyday subjects such as busy shop floors but also had a fascination with more imaginative ideas. He is known particularly for developing the ‘fete galante’ genre that shows a vision of high society enjoying the countryside. Romantic scenes show the emotional reserve of the rich and the importance of even the smallest gestures. He had a great ability to create texture and tone even in a drawing made with just one colour of pencil.
Watteau may be better known for his paintings, but from this carefully curated exhibition of his exquisite and subtle drawings, I think it’s clear he had a lot more to give.
Exhibition continues until 15 June 2011, book here.