Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2010
Katherine Baetjer, ed. Watteau, Music, and Theater Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 176 pp.; 75 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780300155075)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22–November 29, 2009
Jean-Antoine Watteau. Mezzetin (Mezetin) (probably 1718–20). Oil on canvas. 21 ¾ x 17 in. (55.2 x 43.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Munsey Fund, 1934 (34.13).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is ideally suited for an exhibition devoted to the theme of “Watteau, Music, and Theater” because two of Watteau’s most incisive treatments of these themes reside in its collection: the solitary singer Mezzetin (ca. 1718–20) and the tragic-comic French Comedians (ca. 1720–21). Both works also display Watteau’s ineffable fusion of performance and humanity, artifice and nature, and gestures both rote and heartfelt. The exhibition, rich in drawings as well as paintings loaned from a wide variety of institutions and private collections, allowed viewers to ponder the artist’s compelling transformation of music and theater into an exploratory pictorial language. But only about half of the exhibition featured works by Watteau himself; the rest comprised an eclectic mix drawn largely from the Metropolitan’s extensive collections of eighteenth-century objects, including paintings, graphic arts, porcelain figures, miniature boxes, and musical instruments. Two large, very well preserved fête galantes by Watteau’s follower Nicolas Lancret, featuring two aspects of the dance world in the 1720s, were on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. These works complemented the Metropolitan’s equally large, equally ambitious painting by Watteau’s only known student, Jean-Baptiste Pater, which envisions the Parisian Fair at Bezons (ca. 1733).

The exhibition was conceived by Georgia J. Cowart, Professor of Music at Case Western University, who spent two years as a fellow at the Metropolitan and has recently published a book on French musical theater in the decades around the turn of the eighteenth century: The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). It was organized and impeccably mounted by Katharine Baetjer, Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan. The exhibition catalogue, edited by Baetjer, features an essay on Watteau by Pierre Rosenberg as well as an account by Cowart of the multiple venues where eighteenth-century Parisians could encounter musical theater. Scholarly entries on all of the objects in the exhibition were contributed by the Metropolitan’s curators as well as outside experts, notably Mary Tavenor Holmes on Lancret and Kim de Beaumont on Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. The objects were displayed in two rooms, with works by Watteau grouped together in each and the rest of the works laid out around or across from them. This allowed visitors to compare Watteau’s handling of musical and theatrical themes with those of his contemporaries and followers, as well as with documentary artifacts. Most helpful among the latter were the Metropolitan’s musical instruments, carefully selected to match those that Watteau favored: a richly ornamented, five-course guitar; a rare musette de cour with its original silk bag; an oboe fashioned in ebony and ivory; a wooden transverse flute; and a heart-stopping Stradivari violin from 1694, “The Francesca.”

The exhibition’s drawings and paintings by Watteau included a number of his finest works depicting costumed characters, fragmentary performances, and allusions to the stage. Certain paintings had rarely or never before been exhibited in the United States, most notably The Surprise (ca. 1718), a tiny gem whose whereabouts had been unknown for over two centuries before it emerged on the art market in July 2008. Having real musical instruments at hand, visitors could check Watteau’s representations of performing musicians against the material evidence, with often intriguing results. This famously elusive artist crafted many of his pictorial instruments with great care, as one could see in The Union of Comedy and Music (ca. 1715), a rarely exhibited work from a private collection, and the only pure allegory that can securely be attributed to Watteau. Thalia and Euterpe, Muses of Comedy and Music, flank an emblematic cartouche that includes a number of small, elegantly rendered string instruments as well as an enormous transverse flute crossed with a “slapstick” from the Commedia dell’ arte. Equally precise are the hands of the musicians in Watteau’s figure studies and scenic paintings, leading one to conclude that he must have closely observed and sketched the performances of his fellow artists from the musical world. Archly drawn fingers stop strings and cover holes with plausible dexterity, and whole bodies at times give themselves over completely to the musical performance. Such is the case in the Metropolitan’s lyrical Mezzetin: with his leg crossed to support his fine guitar, he directs his head, eyes, and open mouth toward a single spot above and beyond his physical reach, while his large left ear faces out meaningfully toward the viewer, sensitively glistening in the light.

Thus attuned to carefully defined hands, viewers began to find them everywhere: in the exquisite Plaisirs du bal (1715–17), on loan from the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the shimmering pair of dancers facing off on the ballroom floor perform down through their very fingers. The male dancer carefully joins index finger to thumb—a popular practice discouraged by the dance master Pierre Rameau as overly fussy and affected (Le Maître à danser, Paris: Jean Villette, 1725). The female dancer meanwhile grasps the edges of her skirt with delicate, gently separated fingers, exactly as Rameau would have wished. Many of Watteau’s performers wear Commedia dell’ arte costumes, some perhaps from the artist’s own collection; and these figures, too, displayed eloquent precision in the handling of their extremities. On a sheet of drawings from the Art Institute of Chicago that features a model dressed as the Commedia’s Brighella, Watteau made separate studies of the man’s head, both masked and unmasked; a full-body pose with large, spread hands and a delicate, outturned foot; as well as an isolated, finely drawn hand that appears to lift easily but in fact twists so obliquely that one would have difficulty holding it for any length of time. Elsewhere, Watteau appears to have so fully absorbed the possibilities of producing comedy through pose and gesture that we find fragments of humor emerging not so much from staged performances as from accidental moments that arise in process. Within the small band performing on the left side of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie’s Love in the French Theater (1714), the violinist, in the midst of bowing, looks over his shoulder at the musette player, as if trying to remember the tune. In the newly discovered Surprise, a man aggressively forces a woman into a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn and backward dip, a move that the artist took from a dancing couple in Peter Paul Rubens’s Village Fair (1635–38; Paris, Louvre). On close inspection, however, we find that Watteau’s impassioned dancer has seriously jumped the gun, for the guitarist is not playing at all, but is still in the process of tuning his instrument.

The objects by other artists in the exhibition were most comprehensible the nearer they came to the theme of “Watteau, Music, and Theater”; especially cogent in this regard were prints and drawings documenting or evoking performances held at the French court or in Parisian theaters. Watteau’s one-time teacher Claude Gillot was represented in several lithe, graphic studies of the Commedia dell’ arte and other theatrical figures; and Lancret’s drawing of a “Young Lady Dancing,” arms outspread and wide skirt dissolving into pure light at the hem, showed how much this artist departed from Watteau in allowing his female dancers to project their limbs outward into space. Charles-Nicolas II Cochin’s scrupulously detailed depiction of the famous “Ball of the Yew Trees” (1745) held in the Grande Galerie at Versailles conveyed the huge scale of this production, while the same artist’s gouache and watercolor portrayal of “The Marquise de Pompadour in a Scene from Acis et Galathée” (1749; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada) showed, by contrast, how very small-scale and intimate were the performances held in Pompadour’s portable “Théâtre des Cabinets.” Somewhat further afield were the German porcelain figurines, several modeled by Johann Joachim Kändler for the Meissen porcelain factory, in which one found the fête galante’s comic and decorative artistry brilliantly transformed into a completely different medium. Certain other works, however, veered so far from the exhibition’s main theme that their inclusion was downright puzzling: although Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s Dance in the Country (ca. 1755) is a masterful spin on the masquerade theme, it seems to correspond less to Watteau and French performance practice than it does to Venetian traditions. Pater’s two paintings of military subjects contain nothing of music nor of theater, and even certain works by Watteau, notably the large, poorly conserved Italian Recreation from Potsdam (ca. 1720–21), contains only a guitar and a couple of capes that distantly evoke the theater. What, exactly, one was forced to wonder, were the criteria for including works in the show?

Equally perplexing was the absence of any written material within the exhibition: although visitors could use an audioguide that featured selections of period music, there were no labels explaining the exhibition’s main theme, nor the ways in which the works on display related to it. The catalogue, which was available for consultation in the exhibition, also lacks thematic unity and displays a curiously piecemeal quality, perhaps because so many different experts contributed to its contents. The initial essay by Rosenberg contains reflections upon Watteau that are valuable in themselves but do not address music or theater; and the individual catalogue entries, while informative and scrupulously researched, do not probe the issues of music and theater as one might expect them to in an exhibition devoted to this theme. Cowart’s essay provides a reader with an excellent grounding in Parisian theater of the early eighteenth century, but it stands somewhat isolated amid the art-historical writing, which makes little reference to its content. This gap widened when one turned to the Saxon, Bohemian, and Venetian works on view, for which there was no introductory guidance at all.

Despite these drawbacks the exhibition and its catalogue remain valuable for the high quality of the works on display and the general scholarship that went into their selection and description. There is no question that early modern culture was immeasurably enriched by Watteau’s appropriation of music and theater, as well as by the legacy of what today might be called his interdisciplinary endeavor. During the exhibition’s run in New York the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon showed just how relevant this legacy remains, in re-staging his 2008 Commedia, a ballet that uses the Commedia dell’ arte as a springboard for inventive collective movement. The costumes, by the fashion designer Isabel Toledo, recalled Meissen porcelain in their use of white unitards with flying bits of bright, saturated color; and Wheeldon’s choreography made the most of ornamental style and witty play as a means of delineating human contact. Wheeldon dedicated his troupe’s performance of Commedia to the Ballets Russes, but he might equally have acknowledged the subtle union of the arts that Watteau achieved some three hundred years ago.

Sarah R. Cohen
Departments of Art and Art History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University at Albany, State University of New York