The Royal Academy has redeemed itself.
“Modern British Sculpture,” an exhibition that opened there in January, is eccentric, sprawling and hard to comprehend (I’m still trying to work out what Queen Victoria is doing in the middle of it). “Watteau: The Drawings” is the opposite: wisely selected, perfectly mounted and crammed with beautiful things, it’s just about the best show of the year so far in London.
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was among the greatest of French painters. Indeed, a good deal of what you might think of as characteristically French in art — lightness, elegance, grace, a bittersweet sense of life — begins with him.
Right from the beginning, Watteau’s drawings — almost 90 are on display in the show — have been considered the best of his work. He had an amazing ability, using red, black and white chalks to catch the subtle nuances of things: a glance, the fall of a woman’s dress, a gesture, the gleam of a naked body. In a few strokes of chalk, he could show you not just what something looked like, but how it felt.
It seems he drew in a sketchbook constantly, and without any particular picture in mind. When he came to make a painting, he selected from this image bank, sometimes years after making the drawing. It long has been believed that when he was received into the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, a category of art had to be invented to describe what he did, the “fete galante.” There’s a scholarly disagreement as to whether that’s true. It doesn’t change the fact that most of Watteau’s pictures are of people hanging around outdoors doing nothing specific.