Watteau: The Drawings at the Royal Academy. By Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was the most richly talented and innovative painter at work in early eighteenth-century France. He was also an elusive, enigmatic and sickly young man, a victim of savagely consumptive tuberculosis. According to his friend and patron, the Parisian merchant Edme-Francois Gersaint, “His character was anxious and volatile; he stood by his wishes, was a libertine intellectually but was sober of habit, impatient, shy, cold and awkward in manner, discreet and reserved with strangers, a good but difficult friend ...” As an artist, Watteau was equally slippery. He invented a new form of painting, suspended between the depiction of mythology and modern life, in which elegantly dressed men and women commune melancholically with one another in evocatively pastoral settings. Perhaps the most famous of these allegorical puzzle-pictures is his reception piece for the French Academy, the Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera: a deeply ambiguous painting of amorous revelry that looks less like a celebration of life and love than a lament for the certainty of its passing. In deference to Watteau’s extreme originality, the Academy broke with its own strict sense of aesthetic hierarchies and invented a new category to describe this new kind of picture: the fete galante.

 “Watteau: The Drawings,” a small but deeply absorbing exhibition at the Royal Academy, focusses on a different aspect of his achievement. Watteau was one of the most sensitive and acute draughtsmen who ever lived, and this carefully distilled selection of some 90 drawings demonstrates the full range both of his genius and his emotional sympathies. He was a master of the trois crayons method, combining red and black chalk with graphite to create immensely subtle images full of life and light, character and colour. Whereas his paintings alchemise...

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