Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2001
Julie Ann Plax Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France Cambridge University Press, 2000. 272 pp.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (052164268X)

Julie Anne Plax’s Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France belongs to what we might call the “third wave” of writing on Watteau that has transpired during the two centuries following the artist’s own. The first, nineteenth-century manifestation of Watteau writing presented the paintings as dreamy, imaginative poems and the artist himself as a melancholy visionary. Early in the following century began a second, more objectivist trend that sought to codify and interpret the artist’s oeuvre through historical documentation, connoisseurship, and iconographic studies. This “second wave” of writing on Watteau culminated in 1984 with an international exhibition and catalogue and two major monographs. The 1980s also saw the initiation of a new trend in Watteau scholarship that brought interdisciplinary theory and social history to analyses of the artist’s paintings, notably Norman’s Bryson’s semiotic approach in Word and Image: French Painting in the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), and Thomas Crow’s use of Marxist theory and social art history in Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). These books prepared the groundwork for several subsequent studies, including Plax’s, that have explored Watteau’s work for its subtle references to contemporary culture, for its engagement of Parisian audiences’s social and political concerns, and for its resistance to authoritative interpretation.

In her introduction, Plax clearly situates her book within this most recent art historical trend. She emphasizes equally her debt to scholars such as Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton who have brought considerations of material culture, audience reception, and sociological theory into historical studies. Eschewing a monographic approach in favor of four linked essays that focus upon individual paintings or themes, Plax identifies in Watteau’s art a constant subversion of hierarchies and traditional expectations, and she interprets this subversiveness as the artist’s response to a “crisis of authority” on the part of the French government during the waning years of Louis XIV’s reign and the Regency. Taking seriously the premise that art engages, rather than simply reflects, social struggles and desires, Plax in each of her four chapters weaves her analysis of Watteau’s paintings with considerations of the “cultural politics” that the works appear to address. Carefully and clearly argued, Plax’s book sets a model for actively integrating visual, historical and theoretical concerns.

Among the many useful features of Plax’s book is the attention she pays to works previously neglected in Watteau literature, as in her opening analysis of the Departure of the Italian Comedians in 1697 and her sustained examination of Watteau’s paintings of military encampments and marches in Chapter 2. In both of these cases Plax interprets Watteau’s innovative, at times disjunctive, figural designs and compositional arrangements in light of public resistance to royal policies—the banishment of the Italian Comedians from France in 1697 and the unpopular War of the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s. Here, as elsewhere in her book, Plax takes issue with Bryson’s interpretations of Watteau’s paintings as presenting an endless play of visual signs that renders moot the question of meaning. Plax asserts, by contrast, that the play of signs in a work such as the Departure of the Italian Comedians corresponds to, and even illuminates, the mixed and conflicting discourses that characterized this particular social dilemma.

More overtly political is Plax’s assessment of the military paintings as a subversion of the panoramic, celebratory battle scenes produced by Charles Parrocel and other royal artists earlier in the reign of Louis XIV. She notes that Watteau tends to curtail distant views into the landscape—a conventional means of establishing the territorial power of the ruler—and build his compositions around the literally more pedestrian actions of the soldiers in the foreground. Such closing in of the landscape environment produces a more intimate pictorial structure, which Plax interprets as a renunciation of the very purpose for which military paintings were traditionally made. Here one might note an interesting parallel with the landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough, who also closed in and made more sensuous and accessible the landscape structures from which he was borrowing—a Rococo device which some scholars have likewise interpreted as a response to social pressures, in this case the English enclosure movement.

In both of these chapters Plax relies heavily upon eighteenth-century reproductive engravings, since the Departure of the Italian Comedians and many of Watteau’s military paintings are missing today. Such a practice encourages the reader to accept the engravings as fully representative of the paintings themselves, with perhaps not enough allowance given to the intervention of the engraver. Watteau’s engravers indeed routinely substantiated certain of the artist’s more ambiguous details, a fact that appears not to trouble Plax, perhaps because her primary concern is to assess the way in which Watteau’s images might have been received by a wider audience. But in the cases where the original painting does exist, as in the glowing Thyssen-Bornemisza Halt, Plax’s argument might have benefited from consideration of the subtle coloring and tonal contrasts of the painting, and especially from assessing the composition in the direction the artist originally planned.

In her third and fourth chapters Plax turns to the politics of the aristocratic elite in her examination of Watteau’s fête galante paintings and the Signboard made for the art dealer Edme Gersaint. She identifies the fête galante with an exclusive cult of honnêteté that flourished in the early seventeenth century and reemerged briefly in Watteau’s own era. The Signboard she associates with a “new nobility” of taste and connoisseurship, represented above all by the ambitious Gersaint. Plax sees both of these groups as operating outside, and even in opposition to, the court and state-sponsored institutions; she thus continues the theme of resistance to the royal regime that runs throughout her book. Most convincing is her assessment of the Signboard as an inversion of the traditional hierarchies of “low” and “high” art—an inversion that would have been appreciated by Parisians familiar with the conventions of history painting and also steeped in the prosaic, urban language of the signboard. Plax argues that in Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, submitted as a reception piece to the Royal Academy, Watteau likewise confounded the Academy’s categories of artistic genre, a defiance of convention reinforced in other fête galante paintings through an ironic union of honnête artifice and blunt sexuality. Here Plax may be forcing Watteau’s paintings too narrowly into a counter court mold, for some of the strategies she identifies as subversive, particularly the masquerade, were in fact as much a product of courtly invention and self-parody in the decades around the turn of the eighteenth century as they were the preoccupations of Parisians.

Upon completion of Plax’s provocative study, one is left wondering what was at stake for the artist himself in the various subversive gestures she identifies within his paintings. Through what means did pictorial and social impulses find a common language? Plax remains ambivalent on this issue, focusing principally upon audience reception and suggesting only that Watteau, confronted with a set of pictorial conventions too restrictive for his artistic breadth, “had to figure out a way to express himself” (192). We must conclude on the basis of Plax’s previous arguments that this self-expression was deeply tied to concerns and desires within his society, but how such a correspondence between artistic and social desire actually worked remains a hanging question, and the artist’s project itself something of an abstraction.

But if we cannot pinpoint an artist’s intentions—and few art historians today would claim that we can—we can at least attempt to penetrate the process through which works of art come into being. In the case of Watteau, what we have are hundreds of drawings that the artist appears to have produced incessantly throughout his short career. While hardly providing direct links to the artist’s paintings, the drawings cover the full range of his thematic endeavors and offer perhaps the most immediate evidence that we have of the way in which his pictorial language took shape. It is thus surprising that Plax briefly considers only two of Watteau’s drawings, both probably compositional studies for signboards and thus rather atypical. One wonders what Plax might have done with the numerous drawings of soldiers, for example, that show the artist probing the uniformed body at rest and in motion, alone and in subtle combinations; how might this concentrated, graphic study have contributed to the artist’s revisions of military scenic conventions? Similarly, how might Watteau’s theatrical character drawings produced in and around the studio of Claude Gillot have inflected the seemingly disjunctive composition and exaggerated figural postures in the Departure of the Italian Comedians? Perhaps Plax has overlooked to some extent the insights produced by the “second wave” of Watteau studies focusing upon connoisseurship. However embedded a painter’s project may be in the political conflicts and dilemmas of his or her society, it is, after all, through the process of painting—and drawing—that a social idea gains form.

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