Antoine Watteau, the Music Lesson

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, from 8 February to 12 May 2013.

1. Louis Surugue (c. 1686-1762)
after Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
The Music Lesson (to prove to us
that this beautiful woman)
, 1719
Aquafortis and Etching - 18.3 x 23.5 cm
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Photo : BnF

"Your soul is a select landscape / Charmed by masks and bergamasques / Playing lutes and dancing and / Sad beneath their fanciful disguises." [1]. The music lesson (ill. 1) proposed by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels through Watteau’s art is particularly well suited to the rythm of Verlaine’s verse, as well as that of Baudelaire, who both intoned its poetic correspondence.
Based on the fact that one third of Watteau’s works represent musicians, the exhibition seeks to underscore the inherent musicality of his art, for which the genre of fête galante was created. This artistic event is especially notable in that it was directed by an orchestra conductor, William Christie [2] who, while in residence at BOZAR, studied the pictorial sonority in Watteau, collaborating also with the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille and associate curator Florence Raymond.
It is quite a feat to have assembled about fifteen canvases by the master, despite the reluctance of many museums to lend out their works. They are rounded out by thirty sheets and fifty contemporaneous engravings after his paintings and drawings - produced by Boucher, Benoït Audran II, Charles-Nicolas Cochin - which at times stand in for the paintings which could not be obtained or have disappeared. An ensemble of musical instruments, documents and scores provide a rich context while music is heard throughout the galleries, played by young students certain days or broadcast in rooms all along the chronological and thematic visit.

2. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Indiscreet, c. 1716-1717
Oil on Canvas - 56 x 68 cm
Rotterdam, Boijmans Van Beuningen Musuem
Photo : Boijmans Museum

This exhibition, which of course evokes the essential role of Pierre Crozat and the inevitable Jullienne collection - in fact the catalogue reproduces Tardieu’s engraving depicting Watteau and his patron (see news item of 21/2/13) - does not claim to offer any revelations in such a famous oeuvre, especially since the subject was treated not long ago by the Metropolitan Museum [3], but it is deserving in that it assembles paintings and drawings which are rarely visible together, encouraging visitors to listen as well as look. The very complete catalogue accompanies the works with detailed entries and presents contributions from musicologists, art historians and even a neurobiologist, Jean Pierre Changeux. An interview with William Christie and Pierre Rosenberg, transcribed in the catalogue and shown in video version in the rooms, juxtaposes the views of these two eminences. Finally, a C.D. offers a selection allowing us to associate paintings and music.

After presenting the artist and his circle with a series of portraits, the exhibition begins with... total silence, amid four canvases devoid of musical instruments. And yet, even when there are no musicians present, Watteau’s paintings communicate the sounds of nature, a whispered conversation. At least, this is the implication in the title of the section "When silence is golden", unfortunately opening itself up to critics. It is tempting to think this is only a pretext to show certain loans, integrated here at any price in an almost artificial way, simply because Watteau canvases are rare and the organizers wished to avoid an exhibition centered on engravings after the artist. No matter, besides the charming nape of one of the Two Cousins, visitors will also have the chance to enjoy Sulking from Saint Petersburg and the Shy Lover from the Prado, a natural companion to Waiting for a Proposal from Angers.

3. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Two Youths, One a Violinist, Seated in a Landscape,
after Giulio and Domenico Campagnola (?), c. 1715-1716
Red Chalk - 22.3 x 30.4 cm
San Francisco, The Fine Arts Museums
Photo : The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Though we know little or nothing about his training, the influences of Italy - but Watteau never traveled there - and Flanders - he was not born there [4] - are very obvious. He made almost no trips but copied the works of the masters, looking at Flemish and Dutch painters of the Golden Age, as evidenced by Indiscreet from Rotterdam (ill. 2), confronting Rembrandt’s Mischevious. He was also marked by the warm shades of Venetian painting, producing very personal copies in red chalk, notably thanks to Crozat, who spent time in Italy in 1715 and returned with purchases. Thus the sanguine representing Two Youths, One a Violonist, Seated in a Landscape (ill. 3) might well be after Giulio and Domenico Campagnola.

Italy permeated every form of art : painting, music, theater and, though Louis XIV forbid Italian comedy in 1697, the Regent revived it in 1716. The characters in the "commedia dell’arte", Gilles, Mezzetin and Arlequin "emperor of the moon", inhabit Watteau’s canvases who places them in a landscape not on stage ; no longer in the theater, are they still acting or are they real ? According to Alain Tapié [5], the painter explores the "plausible", finding a fine balance between true simplicity and true ideal which Roger de Piles distinguishes in his text Du vrai de la peinture in 1708. In fact, theatrical illusion, better than reality, tells us the truth, as underscored in turn by Manuel Couvreur [6]. The Party of Four is a beautiful example (ill. 4) and, as always, leaves the viewer wondering about what is going on, in fact free to imagine his own intrigue. And although the titles of Watteau’s compositions were not chosen by the artist himself but the engravers, they transmit the ambiguity of the scenes - sometimes equivocal, always enigmatic - marvellously.

4. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
A Party of Four, c. 1713-1714
Oil on Canvas - 49.5 x 62.9 cm
San Francisco, Fine Arts Museums
Photo : Fine Arts Musuem of San Francisco

In the same way as a play stages scenes of love and fate, music also lends itself well to the art of seduction : the harmony of the chords induces the harmonious encounter of hearts and bodies. "While singing in a minor key / Love conquers and life takes over" [7], the music lesson progressively turns into elegant trifling ; the theme is common in painting, particularly Flemish and Dutch art. This is evoked by another section, evolving from Love chords to Perfect harmony [8], titles which communicate this blend of gallantry and music in a rather explicit manner, whereas the compositions themselves are less so ; indeed, the figures can be considered simply as musicians getting ready to play and sing. The two companion pieces from Troyes, go further in suggesting the intrusion of a figure, Enchanter (ill. 5) or Adventurer, who troubles the balance of the duo.

Viol, violin, flute, oboe, the music lesson of course requires instruments, and the exhibition has not neglected to include them, real ones from the period, alluding to the canvases. Here we find a guitar, an ideal accompaniment to a song, there a hurdy-gurdy whose rustic appearance contrasts with the refinement of the bagpipe, "And the mandolin prattles / Among the shivers of the breeze" [9]. The curator regrets not being able to display an 18th century harpshichord but we discover rare wind instruments from the Hotteterre dynasty, famous musicians and manufacturers. The chamber music developed during this time is evoked through instruments but also treatises and scores. Finally, the figure of Couperin is highlighted as the painter’s alter ego, embodying a new tendency in music, distancing itself from Lully, just like Watteau also marks the end of the aesthetics of the Louis XIV period. William Christie insists : "the closest figure to Watteau in music is Couperin, another great figure of this circle" [10].

5. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
The Enchanter, c. 1712-1714
Oil on Copper - 18.8 x 25.6 cm
Troyes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : MBA de Troyes

The instruments can be found in the artist’s drawings, in red chalk or three chalks, with a beautiful selection here on display (ill. 6 and 7). "Watteau is without a doubt, along with Seurat, the greatest French draughtsman. Besides the virtuosity, he knows how to add poetry to the figures, a manner of grasping exactly the right moment" explains Pierre Rosenberg [11]. He captures an instrumental move with the acuity of a music lover (or even of a musician perhaps ?), he knows how to seize a passing instant, with the fingers on the strings, the expression of a face, the attitude of the body, so much so that specialists can tell which note is being illustrated in the sanguine.
The visit ends with Pierre Crozat, a financier and art patron, who also had a passion for music and Italy, exerting a dual influence on Watteau, providing him with the opportunity of studying the Italian paintings and drawings in his collection but also mingle with the musicians of the time, in an avant-garde setting which favored chamber music and the Italian repertory. The financier’s musical library reveals the advent of a new taste, associating the works of composers such as Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti. The cantata and the sonata became the fashion, to the detriment of the lyrical tragedy, then the nec plus ultra found in musical programs. Lighter, more intimate, music became a source of unadulterated pleasure, devoid of any symbolic, moral, educational or ceremonial overtones. Restricted musical ensembles were all the vogue, meant to be played in private residences and no longer in châteaux. Paris imposed its taste on Versailles.

6. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Two Studies of a Bagpipe Player, c. 1716
Three Pencils - 26.7 x 22.1 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP/Michèle Bellot

7. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Man Standing Playing a Bassoon at Three-quarter
View and Turning Left
, c. 1716-1717
Black Chalk, Red Chalk
and Red Chalk Wash - 26.6 x 16.6 cm
Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Photo : Staatliche Museen

Crozat, along with Agnès Berthelot de Pléneuf, Marquise de Prie, created the Concert italien, a musical society which offered paying concerts with professional musicians and encouraged the renewal of repertories and players. Music lovers could listen to sonatas by Somis, Vivaldi, cantatas by Bassani, Bononcini, Gabrielli, Stradella. Two paintings by Lancret evoke the atmosphere in the salons of the Crozat residence in Paris and also his country home in Enghien. A universe familiar to Watteau and which inspired him for his art, transforming his painting into a musical score. "The serenaders / And the beautiful women listening / Exchange casual comments / Under the singing branches." [12].

Curators : William Christie, Florence Raymond.

Under the supervision of Florence Raymond, Antoine Watteau, la leçon de musique, 2013, Edition Hannibal/BOZAR BOOKS, 272 p., 39.95€. ISBN : 9789491376382.

Visitor information : Palais des Beaux-Arts, rue Ravenstein 23, 1000 Brussels. Tel : +32 (0)2 507 82 00. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm, on Thursdays until 9 pm. Admission : 10€ (reduced : 8, 6, 4€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 9 avril 2013


[1] Votre âme est un paysage choisi/ Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques / Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi / Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques., Paul Verlaine, "Clair de lune", collection of Fêtes galantes, 1869.

[2] Musical director of Les Arts Florissants and member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

[3] New York, Metropolitan Museum, Watteau, Music and Theater from 22 September to 29 November 2009.

[4] Watteau was born in 1684 in Valenciennes which became French in 1678.

[5] Alain Tapié, "Watteau, la touche et le toucher", exhibition catalogue, p. 24.

[6] Manuel Couvreur, "Dans l’oreille de l’artiste. La musique au temps de Watteau", exhibition catalogue, p. 29.

[7] Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur / L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune, Paul Verlaine, "Clair de Lune", collection of Fêtes galantes, 1869.

[8] The exhibition presents two engravings after paintings residing at the County Museum of Los Angeles and the National Gallery in London.

[9] Et la mandoline jase / Parmi les frissons de brise, Paul Verlaine, "Mandoline", collection of Fêtes galantes, 1869.

[10] "Entretien entre William Christie et Pierre Rosenberg", exhibition catalogue, p. 15.

[11] "Entretien entre William Christie et Pierre Rosenberg", exhibition catalogue, p. 15.

[12] Les donneurs de sérénades / Et les belles écouteuses / Echangent des propos fades / Sous les ramures chanteuses, Paul Verlaine, "Mandoline", collection of Fêtes galantes, 1869.

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