Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and his Circle form exquisite double show at Wallace Collection

By Ben Miller | 15 March 2011
An image of an epic oil painting of a landscape of mountains and the sea
Salvator Rosa, Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl (circa 1657-8). Oil on canvas© London, Wallace Collection
Exhibition: Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle, West Gallery I, Hertford House, The Wallace Collection, London, until June 5 2011

A salacious glint shines behind incendiary French painter Antoine Watteau’s exquisite works at the Wallace. A Lady at her Toilet, from 1716, is one of only three surviving paintings by Watteau from the fête galante genre he invented, taking female nudes out of their otherworldly statuses as goddesses and nymphs and putting them in altogether more ordinary settings.

The gleeful controversy this mortal sauciness sparked is only spoiled by Watteau’s later backtracking, when he is said to have repented and asked for the canvasses to be destroyed upon his death.

Yet they stand as works which changed the course of French art history, and should be treasured as such – Les Champs Élysées references the different stages of love by contrasting childlike innocence with rural lovers cavorting around between trees, and Les charmes de la vie parallels lusty flirting between a pair of suitors with a girl playing a game with her dog.

Espirit is actually two exhibitions – the first is a redisplay of the Collection’s tremendous group of Watteau canvasses, and the second comprises a purge of significant masterworks of the 17th and 18th centuries from the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, Greuze and Vernet in the Exhibition Galleries downstairs.

The sets are linked by Jean de Jullienne, Watteau’s publisher and dealer. One of France’s greatest collectors, de Julienne owned all of the works in the lower display at some stage, and his relationship with Watteau encapsulated his support for 18th century contemporary artists, heralding a new cultural avant-garde which broke free from the aristocracy who had previously held exclusive sway over dealerships.

When Watteau died of tuberculosis in his late 30s, de Julienne took responsibility for distributing engravings of his work. His endeavours ensured a longevity which makes Watteau’s ideas and vivacity as fresh and important today as they were almost 300 years ago.

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