Connoisseur or Historian

John Haber
in New York City

Watteau to Degas and Rococo to Revolution

Watteau, Music, and Theater

"Watteau to Degas" takes one into the mind of a connoisseur. It must sound obvious, for drawings from a private collector. It must sound obvious, but it is not.

Of course, any collection of art may have more to do with taste, ego, or market value than delight. However, even French drawings can say as much about history as about the trained eye. With a parallel show at the Morgan Library, one sees in miniature changing styles and the changing character of an age. Even when a drawing catches one by surprise, or maybe especially then, it shapes how one imagines the course from "Rococo to Revolution." Edgar Degas's Head of a Soldier (Fondation Custodia/Frick Collection, c. 1857–1859)

After all that, still confused by what Jean Antoine Watteau brought to European art? The Met has a narrower theme, "Watteau, Music, and Theater." It has obvious relevance for Watteau, who so often painted the commedia dell'arte. His most famous image of its clown hero in white, Gilles, has the awkward frontal pose of a crime suspect and the blunt vulnerability of a self-portrait.

The theme also has special relevance for his time, which saw courtship and even life as an improvisational theater. Traditionally, art imitated nature. Now, with a little help from Watteau, art set a pattern for nature.

The collector as connoisseur

As for the mind of a connoisseur, it must sound obvious when the connoisseur in question is Frederik Johannes Lugt. By age eight, the Frick delights in noting, Frits Lugt was selling his collection of shells to Amsterdam's Royal Zoo. By fifteen, he had talked his way into the Rijksmuseum and begun cataloguing its drawings and prints. His 1921 publications set standards for a collector's marks for decades to come. By his death in 1970, his listings ran to ninety thousand auction catalogs.

In contrast, the drawings at the Frick can make anyone feel like a connoisseur, because they insist on the surprise. Artists keep breaking the mold, and styles connect across generations. The very entrance hall pairs Gustave Doré with the little-known Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Hoüel, born one hundred years before. The first pictures a forest's glistening trees and dark interior, the other the Colosseum's ruins with a horse cart passing by. They both adopt strong highlights, light colors, and a low vantage point to contrast a tall mass with a half-seen landscape, with only a hint of human habitation. In the juxtaposition, Doré becomes the matter-of-fact observer, while the eighteenth century holds the darker symbolism.

Image after image seems one of a kind—or for Eugène Delacroix two of a kind. Between two quick studies in brown ink, one from the left and one from the right, one can feel a panther slowly circle. Instead of fine line and mannered proportions, J. A. D. Ingres in oval miniature finds a fuller light in his fiancée's smile. Instead of Impressionism and female society, Berthe Morisot finds texture, in the pastel feathers of a swan. Instead of sober brown parables of virtue, Jean-François Millet finds color, in a landscape with clear skies and not a peasant in sight. Instead of Neoclassical theater, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon finds only the edge of a curtain, in chalk that seems to carry it forward into the space of the room.

Often the surprises do speak to an artist's style, perhaps most for Jean Antoine Watteau himself. Each of his six sheets shows Rococo fantasies beginning in social behavior—and social behavior as down to earth. In three views of a soldier, he seems to be trying on poses or fencing with himself. For a Persian ambassador, Watteau pares back his three-chalk technique along with stereotypes of the Orient. Even The Embarkation for Cythera, the isle of Venus, began with seven heads of three models on a single sheet. While François Boucher sticks to type in a woman from behind, carefully thrusting her hip, Jean Honoré Fragonard gives Hadrian's Villa the breadth of an eighteenth-century Vegas or Disneyland.

To leap years ahead, one may not associate Eugène Viollet-le-Duc with the Alps. Yet the architect brings the same draftsmanship as to his work on another larger-than-life structure, Notre Dame de Paris. He even labels the snow, just in case he forgot. However, the greatest strangeness comes in connections between period styles. For Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, the open crossroads of Paris serve as a bustling social milieu, more like Times Square than either a cityscape or Rococo drawing room. A century later, Charles-François Daubigny shows that same Paris about to give way to Baron Haussmann's boulevards, as photographed by Charles Marville. The view from below has become an urban plan, and art's immersion in the passing moment has become art's view from above.

Connections in time become that much more telling in the nineteenth century, with the whole idea of an avant-garde coming into being. A relative unknown like Joseph Bidauld approaches the crisp, flat architecture of Camille Corot in his early years in Rome. Corot, in turn, sketches three trees above windswept rocks closer to Théodore Rousseau. With Hippolyte-Jean Frandrin's jagged rocks separating a purple clearing from the blue of distant hills, French Romanticism could almost spill over to Caspar David Friedrich. For Théodore Géricault, angled branches form a domed canopy over a central clearing that an early modern might have longed to tear apart, while Edgar Degas before his experiments in modernity gives a bearded soldier the dark complexion, piercing eyes, unkempt hair, shining armor of early Romanticism. A short-lived revolutionary might almost have exchanged notes with a collector of the past.

From the East to the novel

When Watteau sketches another visiting dignitary from the East, he pares back his signature three-chalk technique to barely more than red. Black jottings pick out the loops of his Persian dress, but a French general would have bristled at such modest treatment. The artist refuses to dissolve the moment into white highlights, exotic manners, or anything beyond a man standing among men. The stranger seems to have nailed down the aspirations of western Europe before Europe itself could.

One often pictures the Rococo as an escape. The Rococo itself did. Women head for the drawing room or the clouds. Bone structure dissolves into a kind of human flower arrangement. And then comes the French Revolution, just in time. Soon Classicism, Romanticism, and Modernism will fight it out over what it means to bring art back to reality.

In French drawing at the Morgan Library, reality was there all along, and in contrast to connoisseurship from the days of Pierre-Jean Mariette it offers a handy overview of its time. "Rococo to Revolution" captures neither escapism on the one hand nor a seamless march of history on the other. Rather, a century unfolds in small but dramatic leaps. From Watteau on, artists struggle to give a public face to private impulses. In the nineteenth century, artists will glorify their own imaginings and a more democratic public sphere. But first the French have to take a step back—to look around at what lies right there, in front of them.

Jean Antoine Watteau's Seated Young Woman (Morgan Library, c. 1716)This, too, may seem obvious. Paintings may go for fantasy, glory, and bluster, one might think, but artists reveal themselves in drawings. Their training also gave primacy to sketching from life. And often artists do seem more down to earth on paper. Still, drawing also meant editing less out, and by Modernism that included nightmares and formal explorations. With its usual impressive holdings, the Morgan depicts a time when observers were trained editors, of themselves and of each other.

Of course, Watteau initiates the change. Along with Nicolas Lancret, he helps replace an older ideal of composition with invention—and the study of anatomy and texture with pose and action. The result is a mix of immediacy and dignity rather than monumentality or condescension, perhaps especially for Watteau's soldiers. They see men from the rear and women with compassion. They suggest a partnership with the sitter as much as a detached observer. Hubert Robert even places himself as draftsman in a church.

Before long, a tony social scene was eager to join in, too. Watteau's seated woman lingers over her unsettled dress and bare limbs no more than she must. With faux ruins, nature itself thrives on fashion, and Charles Joseph Natoire adds Hamlet himself holding his stagy skull. Boucher epitomizes the mix of polish, decoration, and easy sentiment. His frontispiece frame with cherubs could belong to another new art form, the sentimental novel. His Adoration of the Shepherds could supply the plot.

Stage lighting and a plot twist

With Fragonard, the Salon and the Enlightenment settle in amid the Rococo pleasures. His Neapolitan girl hardly spares her plainness, but not at the expense of the picturesque. Il a Gagné le Prix ("He Won the Prize"), about an overachieving child, makes me think of upper-income parents and the style section today. In drafty architecture, almost like a Tribeca loft, diagonal strokes run smoothly across the entire scene. Modulating those strokes lends smoothness to stables and churches alike. Fantasy parks and villas multiply—by Fragonard, Jacques Rigaud, and others easy to forget—but not without hope, as in Louis Nicolas de Lespinasse, of mapping a newly growing city.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze takes the three-chalk technique into Enlightenment precision and Enlightenment theater. In Old Age Crowned by Love, age reluctantly accepts beauty's adoration, and forget about the other way around. Among his architectural visions, Étienne Louis Boulleé treats a library like an airplane hanger. Only hints of brown wash cover its striking perspective, leading to grand arched windows and open sky. Philosophers were making much the same case for the contents of a library—as an encyclopedia of knowledge and virtue. Nicolas Huët's giraffe might have helped illustrate it.

Finally, with the revolution comes virtue as entirely a public matter, in face, pose, and gesture. With Jacques Louis David's The Tennis Court Oath, it is also a historic matter. Landscape is an expression of the social realm—and portraiture, as ever, an expression of status. Louis-Léopold Boilly brings together portrait heads of family and servants, on a single sheet and in shared sympathies. That does not, however, mean doing without a full retinue. Romanticism will have to complete the revolution in another show.

If art starting with Watteau set a pattern for nature, so did its newly interdisciplinary form. Opera and the comedy merged music and theater. Gardens and architecture aspired to Neoclassical fantasies, but with columns in exaggerated perspective or in ruin. Meanwhile people mill about deciding just how to perform. Fashion exaggerated surfaces and hid behind masks and fans. Another of Watteau's favorite subjects, that voyage to the isle of Venus, could describe an escape into myth, an excuse for courtship, or merely a play.

One could argue that the Rococo had a keen insight into the human comedy and the nature of art. Its self-conscious historicism picks up on the Enlightenment, but without the hope of truth in nature. One could argue that art just reflects the superficial tastes of decadence and wealth. Or maybe it reflects a growing awareness that all this was about to crash in revolution and ruin. Either way, it can seem eerily like the economy and the art world now, when collectors of contemporary art so often get a museum show, like this coming February at the New Museum. When Postmodernism meets the real-estate boom, money talks.

In fact, with "Watteau, Music, and Theater," the Met's real theme is the recession. Its display of Watteau and his time counts among lots of shows these days that make the best of museum resources. A few loans just spiffy up two rooms in the European painting galleries. Both, but especially the room for drawings, show off the Met's collection. It leans heavily to artifice, with little of Watteau at his most perceptive, most ambitious, or most human. It springs most to life in a night scene from Berlin, pierced by torches, and of course the discovery is really stage lighting—and a plot twist.

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"Watteau to Degas: French Drawings from the Frits Lugt Collection" ran at The Frick Collection through January 10, 2009, "Rococo to Revolution: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings" at The Morgan Library through January 3, and "Watteau, Music, and Theater" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 29. Related reviews look at "Watteau and His World" and "Watteau's Soldiers."


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