Watteau’s drawings were appreciated even in his own time, in a way that has no precedents in earlier French art; very shortly after his death, the connoisseur Jean de Jullienne hired François Boucher and a number of other up-and-coming artists to make a great series of prints reproducing, and celebrating, Watteau’s drawings, in all their spontaneous brilliance (which in most cases translated surprisingly well to the print medium). Published over a period of some 18 years, from 1726 on, the prints of the Receuil Julienne ensured for eternity Watteau’s fame as a draughtsman. This early appreciation for Watteau’s drawings also meant that many of his more important drawings entered public collections at a relatively early date, with the result that substantial, multi-figured study sheets such as this now hardly ever come onto the market.
Watteau seems to have drawn constantly, and, as the Comte de Caylus complained, ‘without any object’. Although he certainly made drawings that were intended to help him in the preparation of his painted works, he also clearly just drew whatever was in his mind, or before his eyes, experimenting with poses, figure types and suggestions of mood, and only then perhaps deciding to incorporate one of the figures he created into a painting. Links between Watteau’s drawings and his paintings are often fluid, and sometimes hard to define with certainty, with all that that implies regarding the relevance of connections with paintings in the dating of the artist’s drawings.
Equally fluid and variable is the way in which Watteau combined the different chalk media in which all his drawings are executed. As Louis-Antoine Prat so fascinatingly described in the catalogue of the recent Royal Academy exhibition of Watteau’s drawings, he sometimes (especially early in his career) drew in red chalk alone, sometimes in a combination of red and black, sometimes also with white chalk (‘trois crayons’), and frequently, especially later in his brief career, incorporated shimmering graphite.1 The way in which the artist chose to combine these different chalks was, though, always different, from one drawing to the next: sometimes he drew a figure in red chalk and accented it with sparing touches of black and white; sometimes the figure is mostly drawn in graphite, with just a little red chalk here and there. The list of combinations is endless, and a perfect document of Watteau’s equally boundless artistic imagination.
This fine, double-sided sheet consists of three figure studies on one side, and a rare and delicately executed landscape on the other. The figures on the recto are all drawn mainly in red chalk, together with a certain amount of strong black chalk in the head to the left, and some light touches of black in that to the right. The person represented in the head to the left reappears in other drawings by the artist2, and has sometimes been thought to be a self-portrait. The image is very close, in reverse, to the print by P. Fillœul, after Watteau, published in 1752 as no. 22 in the Livre de différents caractères de têtes (fig. 1).
The half-length profile study to the right can be linked with the famous, large painting, Plaisirs du bal, (completed around 1716-17), now in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in which a very similar figure can be found in the middle of the large figure group to the left of the composition (fig. 2). As Pierre Jean Mariette wrote in around 1730, the Dulwich painting ‘is rightly considered one of the most beautiful by Watteau’3, and quite a number of other drawings can be associated with its genesis4, perhaps most notably a fine sheet with three studies of standing men, in the Louvre.5
The suggested connection of the smaller, kneeling figure, seen from behind, with a figure towards the right foreground of the Berlin Récréation galante (1717-19) is more tenuous, but perhaps still plausible. What is, however, very clear is that these three studies were made as completely unconnected works, yet they sit together on the page with a remarkable, casual coherence and harmony of composition, lighting and movement that is entirely typical of Watteau’s composite sheets of figure studies, which never seem random or accidental in their composition and structure.
One of the most unusual aspects of the present sheet is that in addition to the three figure studies on the recto, the verso bears a very refined landscape drawing of a type that is extremely rare in Watteau’s work. Hardly any of his surviving drawings can be classed as landscapes, and those that we do know are otherwise all in red chalk or chalk and wash, rather than the black chalk that we see here – a medium that Watteau hardly ever used on its own in a drawing, without any complementary red or white chalk. All the same, the handling and technique are extremely comparable to that of the artist’s other rare treatments of landscape, such as the grand Alley of Trees of around 1715-16, in the Hermitage or the drawing in the Musée Jacquemart André, Paris, showing A Man and Woman embracing in a Wood, though both those drawings are executed in red, rather than black, chalk.6 There can be no doubt that both sides of the drawing, however different they may be, are by Watteau – yet another illustration of the relentless experimentation and originality that runs throughout Watteau’s drawn oeuvre.
Despite the links with paintings and prints, the dating of this outstanding sheet has been the subject of discussion. Margaret Morgan Grasselli believes it to have been executed early in the artist’s career, in 1714-15, while Rosenberg and Prat date it a couple of years later, probably to 1717. There cannot, however, be any disagreement over the quality of the studies that make up this exceptional drawing. In the past quarter century, no other well-preserved drawing by Watteau consisting of multiple head and figure studies in a combination of colours of chalks has appeared on the market, far less a sheet that also incorporates an extremely rare landscape drawing by the artist.7 The drawing now emerges, together with the following lot and lot 342, from the English private collection where it has been for nearly a century.
1 L.A. Prat, ‘’Resounding Blows’: Notes on Watteau’s Drawing Technique’, in Watteau. The Drawings, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2011, pp. 21-25
2 For example the head study in a private collection, sold, London, Sotheby’s, 3 July 2013, lot 69; Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 644
3 Manuscript notes in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, vol. IX, fol. 194 ; cited M. Morgan Grasselli and P. Rosenberg, Watteau 1684-1721, exhib. cat., Washington DC, National Gallery of Art, Paris, Grand Palais, and Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, 1984-5, p. 367
4 Grasselli and Rosenberg, op. cit., pp. 367-372
5 Rosenberg and Prat, op. cit., no. 480
6 Ibid., nos. 238 & 155 respectively
7 The only other substantial multi-study sheets sold during this period are the sheet of four heads, sold Paris, Piasa, 8 December 2006, lot 40, and the sheet of red chalk studies of children, sold London, Christie’s, 2 July 2013, lot 57
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