Though Watteau was the inheritor of a great French tradition of drawing in trois crayons, going back to 17th-century predecessors such as Charles de la Fosse, he made this technique very much his own, and extracted from it a visual and expressive range that has no parallels in the work of any other artist. Far more than any of his contemporaries, he constantly experimented with different ways of combining the three different colours of chalk,2 and at this relatively late stage in his brief career he also began increasingly to explore the visual potential of graphite (often erroneously referred to as mine de plomb or 'black lead'3), used in conjunction with some or all of the trois crayons. Graphite adds the possibility of dark yet reflective lines and shading, and when it is used – as here in the right hand figure of a young woman – in tandem with sparing touches of the traditional three chalks, the resultant shimmering effect is spectacular. For a rather different approach to the use of graphite, see the other drawing by Watteau in the Barnet Collection, the Young Man Turned Three Quarters to the Right, lot 14 in the present catalogue.
Although most of this right hand figure is drawn in graphite, Watteau has used red chalk for her face, her hands, and the decorative lines around the bottom of her skirt, which stand out all the more due to the sparing use of the contrasting colour. Finally, he has added small amounts of white chalk to highlight her right sleeve and collar, and one or two small touches of black to define the deepest shadows of her dress.
In striking contrast to this combination of media, the young woman to the left is almost entirely drawn in red chalk, with only limited touches of black chalk and graphite in her bodice and – rather counterintuitively, perhaps – her face. The actual strokes of the chalk, particularly in her skirt, are also sharper and less flowing than in the corresponding areas in the other female figure, conveying with great effectiveness the difference between the two fabrics. Finally, the young man who propositions the left-hand girl is drawn entirely in red chalk, and with strokes of almost cursory rapidity, giving him a ghost-like intangibility that adds brilliantly to the psychological narrative of the encounter between these two figures. We see a very similar rapidity of execution in the fine red chalk drawing of A Group of Comedians near a Fountain, with a Nymph Leaning Against a Dolphin, in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.4
Although the three figures studied here are not directly preparatory for any of Watteau’s paintings, they clearly relate to his broader interest in popular theatre, which was central to his art. This interest clearly began very early: Jean de Jullienne recorded that the artist was first brought to Paris from his native Valenciennes in 1702 by a scene-painter, who had been called to work at the Paris Opéra5, and Claude Gillot, Watteau’s close associate in his early Paris years, himself designed sets and costumes for the Opéra. As François Moureau described in the catalogue of the great 1984-85 Watteau exhibition, the theatrical characters that recur so frequently in Watteau’s works were rarely if ever portraits of specific actors, and were primarily rather generalised images of familiar theatrical types and characters.
Comparable sheets of studies of actors or dancers include the Two Dancers in Weimar6, and there are also similarities with works such as the Stockholm Two Studies of Women7, both of which must date from the same moment in Watteau’s career as the Barnet drawing, yet there are few, if any, other sheets executed in the same very unusual, and highly effective, combination of media that we see here. Using all the weapons in his considerable artistic arsenal, Watteau here produces a drawing that encapsulates his multifaceted gifts as a draughtsman: gifts for narrative, psychology, lightness of touch, magic, and, ultimately, magnetic enigma and mystery.
1. Rosenberg and Prat, loc. cit. Marianne Roland Michel and Margaret Morgan Grasselli prefer a fractionally later dating, possibly to the following year.
2. L.-A. Prat, ‘‘Resounding Blows’: Notes on Watteau’s Drawing Technique,’ Watteau, The Drawings, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2011, pp. 21-25
3. Prat notes (op. cit., p. 23) that there is in fact no lead in this pigment, citing the article: H. Guicharnaud and A. Duval, ‘Une Technique graphique au nom ambigu: la “mine de plomb”,’ Revue des Musées de France. Revue du Louvre, Paris 2010, 3, pp. 41-47
4. Inv. 1592. Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 621
5. Jean de Jullienne, ‘Abrégé de la vie d’Antoine Watteau…’, preface to Les Figures de différents caractères (1726), in P. Rosenberg, Vies anciennes de Watteau, Paris 1984, p. 12
6. Weimar, Classik Stiftung, inv. NR 1015 ; Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 495
7. Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, inv. NM 280/1980; Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 488
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