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French artist Watteau features in rival London shows

Whether by coincidence or design, French 18th century artist Jean-Antoine Watteau has two major London shows dedicated to him, both opening on Saturday.
/ Source: Reuters

Whether by coincidence or design, French 18th century artist Jean-Antoine Watteau has two major London shows dedicated to him, both opening on Saturday.

The Royal Academy's show "Watteau: The Drawings" focuses on the artist as draughtsman, an important element of his work which acquaintances said he preferred to painting.

At the nearby Wallace Collection, the museum has re-displayed its extensive Watteau canvases including examples of the "fete galante" -- an elegant social gathering in parkland setting -- for which the artist is probably best known today.

To accompany the re-hanging, the Wallace put on a separate exhibition on Jean de Jullienne, one of the most important art collectors of his time who edited a collection of prints of Watteau's works which appeared after the artist's death.

While both galleries stressed that their exhibitions should be seen as complementary rather than in competition, privately sources said they would have preferred to avoid such a clash.

The Royal Academy has gathered more than 80 works on paper which underline why Watteau's works on paper were so admired by contemporaries.

Mainly in red or a combination of red, black and white chalk, the drawings capture a host of characters from seated Savoyards to soldiers to a reclining nude.

They are often taken from real life and, unlike the idyllic, tranquil and aristocratic fetes galantes, reflect the teeming and filthy streets of Paris in the early 1700s.

Watteau's friend Edme-Francois Gersaint once said he was "more satisfied with his drawings than with his paintings ... I have often seen him out of temper with himself because he was unable to convey in painting the truth and brilliance he could express with his pencil."

From his extensive drawings, Watteau created the fetes galantes canvases which art critics say took French painting in a new direction and created a fresh idyll for the new century.


The Wallace Collection's exhibition is called "Esprit et Verite: Watteau and His Circle," although the main section is a re-arrangement of the gallery's existing collection of works by Watteau rather than a fresh show.

Complimenting the paintings is a small side-show dedicated to Jullienne, including some of the paintings once owned by the famous patron and an illustrated inventory of his collection.

That collection concentrated on French art, a break from the prevailing preference for important Italian works, and it also featured drawings and sketches and not just finished objects.

The Wallace Collection compared him to leading British art collectors of today like Jay Jopling and Charles Saatchi, who similarly concentrate on contemporary artists.

Although Watteau has been studied extensively, relatively little is known about his life, and his works are particularly difficult to interpret.

He was probably born in 1684 in a Flemish town which had become a part of France six years earlier. He moved to Paris in around 1702 where he worked with a painter of theater scenes before joining successful decorative painter Claude Audran.

He was accepted as a candidate for membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and eventually became a full member in 1717.

He presented the Academy with his most famous painting "The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera" which hangs in the Louvre, Paris. In 1719-20 he spent nearly a year in London but little is known of his stay. In 1721 he died in France aged just 36.