Oil on canvas
163 x 308 cm
Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin
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Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.
PURE PLEASURE! The notion that a work of art should evoke such a response seems to us slightly improper and very old-fashioned. It takes us back to the last whispers of the aesthetic movement, when critics debated the meaning of the term 'pure poetry'. Well, if anything can be called 'pure painting' it is L'Enseigne de Gersaint. Before it I find myself thinking of Pater's essay on Giorgione, and groping for his words 'the sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any others'.
My first impression of the Enseigne is of an interplay of tone and colour so breath takingly beautiful in its own mysterious domain that to attempt an analysis would be foolish and indelicate. But as I sit enraptured by these areas of shimmering light and shadow I fancy that I can understand some of the principles on which it is constructed. To my astonishment I find myself thinking of Piero della Francesca's fresco of the Queen of Sheba. There is the same silvery colour, the same processional dance of warm and cool tones, even some of the same detachment.
The individual colours are nameless, and a colour reproduction which pretends to iternise them misrepresents the whole. The silk dress of the lady on the left, which is the most positive note in the picture, could, I suppose, be described as lavender. But every other large area is not a colour but a mutation of tone. The lavender dress, which is cool, is completed by the warm russet of the man's waistcoat, which then passes into the cool grey of the background.
On the right the process is reversed. The silk dress of the seated lady, an indescribable combination of spring colours, is on the whole warm. The gentleman with his back to us is the coldest grey in the picture, but his silvery wig is relieved by Diana and her Nymphs whose muted pink bodies he is admiring. In and out, back and front, white, cool, warm, cool, black, cool, warm, black: it is a design as strict as a fugue.
But of course Watteau has not allowed this formality to become apparent. He has introduced subtle variations, and he has disguised the symmetry of tone by a contrast in subject, between the two forms of activity in Gersaint's establishment, the fine art of salesmanship, revolving round the elegant picture frame, and the mechanical art of encaissement, based on the rough wooden packing case. Moreover, once our eyes have grown used to the general plan, we become aware of small notes of colour at first imperceptible in the grey. From beneath the standing lady's lavender cloak there appears an emerald green stocking; beside the seated lady's elbow is a lacquerred box. Like exceptional instruments in a large orchestra, they may pass unnoticed until we read the score, yet they have given depth and vibration to the whole.
These reflections on tone and colour, which come first to mind before the Enseigne, would, I think, have occurred to me much later if I had been looking at any of Watteau's other paintings. Before them I should no doubt have found myself thinking about the grace and pathos of his figures, and the touching world of make believe which was his peculiar creation. Even Roger Fry found himself thinking less about the plastic qualities of L'Indifferetit than about the result of his encounter with La Finette. Of course there is a poetic element in the Enseigne, and a delicate interplay of human relations, but these are secondary to the pictorial qualities. In this, as in many other respects, it is unique in Watteau's painting: we must ask what has happened.
L'Enseigne de Gersaint was, in effect, Watteau's last picture. In 1719, already afflicted with consumption, he had taken the strange fancy to visit England, 'that veritable home of the disease'. Perhaps he came to consult the famous Dr Richard Mead; certainly Dr Mead owned two of his pictures, although whether they were painted in England seems to me very doubtful. These months of residence in London are inexplicable, and Watteau's friends felt that they had changed his character. He returned to Paris in the spring of 1720 and the sequel can best be told in Gersaint's own words.
'In 1721, on his return to Paris, in the first years of my business, he came to me and asked if I would allow him to paint an over door to be exhibited outside my premises, in order (these were his words) to take the numbness from his fingers. I felt a certain distaste in granting his request, as I should have liked him to be occupied with something more solid; but seeing that it would give him pleasure, I agreed. The success of this piece is well known. It was all done from nature, and the attitudes were so truthful and easy, the arrangement so natural and the grouping so well understood that it caught the eye of passers by, and even the most skilful painters came several times to admire it. It was the work of eight days, and even so he worked only in the mornings, his delicate health, or rather his weakness, not allowing him to paint any longer. It is the only one of his works which slightly sharpened his self esteem: he admitted this to me unhesitatingly.'
Soon after painting the Enseigne Watteau relapsed into a state of languor, and, fearing that he might inconvenience Gersaint, he insisted on retiring to the country. Gersaint found him a house at Nogent, near Vincennes, his birthplace, and there in the following summer he died, at the age of thirty seven.
Gersaint's narrative suggests several reasons why the Enseigne is exceptional. It was painted fast, and as a rule Watteau had painted slowly; it is on a large scale (over ten feet long), and the best of Watteau's other pictures are small; it was painted from nature and Watteau's usual procedure was to piece together his pictures from drawings in his sketch books, many of which he used several times.
Of the two surviving drawings for the Enseigne, one, a study for the lady in lavender, may have been done earlier, but the other, a sketch of the packers, has a haste and urgency unique in Watteau's work. It is perhaps the only one of his drawings not done for its own sake, but with another end in view. Most revealing of all, Gersaint's account shows us that the Enseigne was painted after a period of inaction and as a result of a strong inner compulsion.
Several of Watteau's friends described his character with the classical precision inherited from the seventeenth-century, and the results are remarkably consistent. He was all that the apologists of the aesthetic movement felt an artist should be: proud, delicate, solitary, dissatisfied with his work. Gersaint had great difficulty in getting him to relinquish his pictures before he could rub them out, and he frequently complained that he was being overpaid for such trifles. He had a passion for independence. When his pedantic friend, the Comte de Caylus, gave him a lecture on his unstable way of life Watteau replied, "The last resort is the hospital, isn't it? There no one is refused admission"; an answer which, as the de Goncourts truly said, brings him close to our own time.
He knew he was consumptive, although how early the disease began to affect him it is hard to say. One may fancy that at a certain point in his work the tension increases. The hands of his figures, which, far more than their faces, betray their restless inner life, seem to grow more strained and nervous, so that the skin is stretched tight over the bone. In fact, arguments based on chronology are inconclusive, as Watteau's drawings and pictures are extremely difficult to date; and the second version of the Embarquement pour Cythere, which was certainly painted when his health was failing, is the most masterly and vigorous of all his works.
Yet the Enseigne suggests that while his fingers were growing numb in the London fog, he was passing through a crisis of the creative mind. Whatever its causes, this crisis manifested itself in two ways, the need for new subjects and the search for a new basis of arrangement. Watteau (it is the first thing said about him by every writer since the de Goncourts) is the poet of illusion. His subjects are make believe, his figures are half in fancy dress and his most realistic works are those which represent actors. Owing to his extraordinary skill in delineating the tangible reality of details - hands, heads and the texture of silk - these illusions became credible and offered the most delightful escape from life since the time of Giorgione: the vogue of his imagery began with his first exhibited picture and lasted a century. When one considers that Fragonard, who, in his best paintings, is still cultivating Watteau's garden, was born ten years after Watteau died, one can see how tenaciously eighteenth-century taste clung to the myth of the enchanted picnic. Watteau was, and surely felt himself to be, a prisoner of the fashion which he had created; hence his impatience with all that he had done, and hence the request which so horrified Gersaint, that his last picture should not be a fete champetre, but a shop sign.
Stylistically, too, he had reached an impasse. Caylus has been derided for saying that he was deficient in the art of composition; but from the academic point of view he was right. Watteau never mastered the baroque trick of relating figures in depth. In his large pictures the groups are dotted about in rows, with a back cloth behind them; only in his small pictures, where all the figures are in the same plane, is there a perfect feeling of unity (a visit to the Wallace collection will confirm this). The great exception is the Embarquement, where Watteau has had the inspired idea of making his departing figures vanish down the side of the bank and reappear by their boat, thus avoiding the problem of the middle distance. It is a device of mannerist painting perfectly appropriate to the subject, but not to be repeated.
At the same time he turned for help to the formality of an architectural setting, and the first result was the Plaisirs du Bal at Dulwich, the most beautiful Watteau in England. This, we may suppose, was the solution which was working in his mind during his months of numbness, and which he was so eager to realise when he went to Gersaint on his return.
The Enseigne employs the schematic perspective of fifteenth-century Florence, which had been revived by the Dutch some sixty years earlier. The setting is a box, with walls converging on a central vanishing point, and with a chequered foreground to lead in the eye. But this box is also a stage (it was in fact in the theatre that the devices of Albertian perspective had their most prolonged success); and in the disposition of the figures, which Gersaint found so natural, Watteau has used the arts of the stage director. What a genial piece of stagecraft, to put the farmer's boy, who brought the straw for the packingcase, in front of the proscenium arch. By thus establishing his actors on a stage he has preserved his detachment, in spite of the fact that they are no longer creatures of illusion, but real and familiar.
This formalised setting has allowed him the symmetrical interplay of tone and colour which was the first thing to strike me in the Enseigne. But by a stroke of inspiration the walls of his perspective box do not imprison the eye, for they are covered with shadowy promises of escape, the pictures in Gersaint's gallery. Interiors of picture galleries were a favourite subject in an age of enlightened collectors, for they both served as a record and multiplied the pleasures of identification. But the pictures in Gersaint's shop are subordinate to the tonality of the whole. We can guess at the authorship of one or two - Rubens, Ricci, Mola - and Watteau has enjoyed making fanciful transcriptions of their designs; but they emerge from the penumbra only far enough to enrich the tone of the background with a play of muted colour.
The value to Watteau of this classical framework lay in the fact that he was not naturally a baroque artist. This is obvious enough if one compares his drawings with those of Rubens. Watteau did not see form as a series of flowing curves but as lines drawn taut as a bowstring. The poses and gestures of his figures may suggest easy movement, but the substructure of even his hastiest sketch is severe. In the Enseigne the standing lady and the kneeling connoisseur are examples of this rectilinear severity, and all the figures, except the packer in the white shirt, have an underlying sharpness of accent. They are more at home in a perspective box than in a feathery park.
But once again Watteau has concealed this severity by the grace of his handling. The Enseigne is painted lightly and rapidly, and without the rich texture of his other pictures. I find it hard to believe that the ladies' silk dresses took him only eight days, but the other figures have the freshness of his drawings. In this Watteau has achieved one of his aims, for we know that he valued his drawings more highly than his pictures, and was tormented by the fact that he could not preserve their qualities in paint. The greater naturalness of the figures, which Gersaint mentions in his description of the Enseigne, was really a liberation of Watteau's own nature. It is as if all the skill which he has hitherto felt bound to keep in reserve, as a jewel setter might lock up his precious stones, had been suddenly poured out quite freely, as if jewels were as common as violets and anemones. Perhaps that is why the Enseigne, in spite of the frivolity of its subject, gives one the feeling of an extremely serious picture. Like the late works of Titian, Rembrandt and Velasquez, it consummates some mystic union between the artist and his art.