In the art criticism he writes for The New Republic, in the essays collected in his volumes Gallery Going and Eyewitness, and in his panoramic history of the artistic excitement that animated mid-20th-century Manhattan, New Art City, Jed Perl has invited readers to share the energy, erudition, and eloquence he brings to his exploration of the art world. Looking over his shoulder at a particular canvas invariably educates one’s attention, while following his concentration across broader trends in art history or on the contemporary art scene is bound to make a reader more alert to the meaning embedded in the cultural landscape past and present.
Perl’s new book, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, is an entirely original investigation into the imagination and achievement of the writer’s favorite painter, the enigmatic and influential “master of silken surfaces and elusive emotions” who died in 1721 at the age of 36. Arranged as an alphabet of themes and ideas, Perl’s beautifully conceived and composed volume combines admiration and analysis, anecdote and scholarship, fictional vignettes and personal reminiscences into an intimate and unconventional investigation of the art of seeing and the way it can inform our lives.
I sat down with Jed Perl in Manhattan towards the end of the summer to discuss Antoine’s Alphabet and the subjects it suggested. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. – James Mustich
James Mustich: In the essay, “The Art of Seeing,” which concludes your book Eyewitness, you write, “Seeing is not easy to talk about, because the talk can easily shift attention away from the primary experience, which is by definition non-verbal.” I wonder if you might begin by talking a little bit about your life’s work, which is, in fact, transforming the experience of seeing into literary material. How did you gravitate towards criticism, and how has your knowledge of the difficulty of finding words for non-verbal perceptions informed what you’ve been doing for the past few decades?
Jed Perl: As a kid growing up, as an adolescent and in college, I had two great loves. One was looking at art and making art — I was a painter for many years. The other was reading good writing, specifically literary criticism, journalistic criticism of all kinds. I was a great fan of Edmund Wilson, and of a lot of other critics of a variety of arts. I loved reading Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. I loved English critics, especially Cyril Connolly. And for many years, all through the 1970s, I was a painter, painting, and I was also writing for art magazines.
So this question of how you transform one experience into the other has interested me for a long time. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of taking a very personal experience, which the experience of looking is, and bringing that to a broader public — which is what I loved in the writers and critics whom I admired: whether they were talking about movies or books or ballet, they were transforming their experience in that way.
The leap of transformation is one of the exciting things about writing on the visual arts; you have this visual experience, and then you analyze it and try to offer it to your reader as a different kind of experience. And I should stress that I see the experiencing of the art and then the writing about the art as two separate processes. When I go around to look at art, I’m in a very open, receptive state of mind. I just want things to come to me and happen to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go to galleries, which I do a day or two every week. I don’t know what I’m going to respond to, or how I’m going to respond. I simply let those responses unfold.
Then later, when I sit down to write, I analyze my own reactions and try to say, “Well, how would I describe that? What about this was important? What are the things I want to emphasize when I tell somebody about this?”
JM: Do you find yourself returning to the gallery once you’ve begun to formulate in words what the experience of seeing was?
JP: If it’s something that’s going on in the city where I live, in New York, I often will return later in the process to check my reactions, to see if the experience as it is on the paper jibes with what I saw.
JM: One of the things that struck me in revisiting “The Art of Seeing,” in the context of reading your new book on Watteau, was the essay’s introduction of its theme. You write: “Every couple of months, I hear an artist or an art historian announce, in a voice suggesting both amazement and frustration, ‘Nobody knows how to look any more.'” Then, just a little later: “People have an idea that to look at art in a sophisticated and up-to-date way means that you do not look at it very long or very hard.” You wrote that about 8 years ago. Do you find it still to be true today?
JP: I’m sorry to say that I think it’s even more true today. The big commercial art world is a juggernaut, a monster. And the experiences that this fast-paced art world favors are rapid-fire, big-bang experiences. In recent months people have been going to the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see the Jeff Koons sculptures — the puppy dog, the giant piece of candy – and to the show at the Brooklyn Museum of the Japanese artist Murakami, most of whose work is derived from cartoons. The only way to respond to this work is almost instantaneously; that’s what it’s about. I think it appeals to certain kinds of collectors, very well-heeled collectors often, who live a very fast-paced life. They make deals fast, they move from place to place fast, and they want an art that reveals itself almost instantaneously. Over the past decade or so since I wrote that essay, I think the interest in this kind of big-bang art has become even more prevalent in the art world.
But there are lots of little art worlds within the big art world, and there are all kinds of painters doing different sorts of things, and all kinds of people are looking at all this work and writing about it. It’s not as if everything in the art world goes in one direction. But the appeal of the quick, the instantaneous, the thing that requires no reflection — that definitely has only grown with time.
JM: Is your fascination with Watteau, so intricately and eloquently explored in your new book, in some way a reaction to what you see on the contemporary scene? Because Antoine’s Alphabet is, in fact, a celebration of looking long and hard — one might even say of looking long, hard, and, referencing the richest connotations of the word, in a leisurely way — at this work, which isn’t fast-paced and exhibits few of the qualities rewarded on the contemporary art scene. Is this focus on Watteau in some way a kind of protective reaction on your part?
JP: I think that’s true, although I’m not sure that I’d use the word “protective.” I think a lot of us long for kinds of experience that we don’t get out on the street. We may enjoy going to the multiplex, watching the latest show on HBO, but we also long for other kinds of experience, other dimensions of experience. One of the things that has been fascinating to me in writing about Watteau in the last few years, and in talking to people about what I’m doing, is that I keep discovering others who are hooked on his work. Or somebody will tell me, “Oh, I’ve just noticed Watteau was mentioned” — in this book or that book. One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that you find you can create communities of interest within the larger cultural world, and explore these elective affinities that develop between people. Part of the fascination of Watteau is that here’s a guy who died at the age of 36, in 1721, and who was always a rather mysterious, enigmatic figure. He did have a group of friends in Paris who were very attached to him, although they themselves could never quite figure him out. He said almost nothing about his work and his ideas. He kept his private life private. He tended to change addresses often. He was a very elusive figure. And there have been periods (especially in the late 18th century, maybe 75 years after his death) when his reputation sank quite low.
But what you find when you look back now, almost 300 years since his death, is that people keep coming to him. Poets, like Verlaine. And other writers: Samuel Beckett loved Watteau; Proust. And painters, of course: CÈzanne loved Watteau, as did Picasso. And Walter Pater, the great English aesthete. The point is that you find people constantly coming to Watteau, being attracted to the leisureliness of his world, the slowed-down pace, the way, in Watteau, that you never quite know what the resolution is going to be.
I should note his especially strong attraction to writers in 19th-century Paris, people like Baudelaire, Nerval, and Balzac, who were caught up in a fast-paced milieu driven by the first stirrings of the great engine of publicity that is in many ways still with us today — the book world, the magazine world, the publish-or-perish kind of world. They felt Watteau’s magic, the pull of his leisurely dream realm.
JM: I’ve been reading you in The New Republic for years, and your books as they’ve come out. Your first book, Paris without End, was about modernity, and both Gallery Going and Eyewitness find you immersed, mostly, in contemporary art. And your last, enormous work was a wonderful art history of mid-20th-century New York, New Art City. So it is a bit of a surprise to find out that your new book is about Watteau. And also to discover, as you say in the prologue, that the name of Watteau unfailingly comes to your lips when you are asked to name your favorite painter. Do you ever hesitate to share this backward-looking affection, or wonder what people will make of it?
JP: Yes. At the beginning of the book, I note that if you say your favorite painter is Rembrandt or Goya, people will say, “Oh, that’s really serious, that’s really the main event.” Watteau has the reputation of being somehow slight, ambiguous, a little bit sneaky maybe, and I think part of my hesitation is that if you say that Watteau is your favorite painter, you may imply, “Well, I have an element of that myself… [LAUGHS] I’m not quite as serious as I seem to be at first.”
I do expect the new book to surprise people. I think my writing is sometimes seen as somewhat hard-edged; people may feel I sometimes insist that things are quite black-and-white when I write about the contemporary situation. The big, noisy canvas of New Art City– which was a book in which I wanted to give a sense of one’s being out on the street, of artists and writers reveling in the mad circus-carnival atmosphere of a great city — I think that kind of noisiness, if you will, is something that people perhaps associate with me, as someone who is in the midst of the hurly-burly of the critical world.
So for me to say, “Oh, what I really like is something quiet and sly,” may indeed be surprising. All I can say is each of us has a lot of different sides. I certainly wouldn’t want to write only about Watteau. But particularly after writing a huge, panoramic book like New Art City, in which I was really trying to see the big picture, it was wonderful to shift perspectives, and write in a whole other key and in a much more personal, much more idiosyncratic and playful way.
JM: Let’s talk about the idiosyncrasy and playfulness of the book. It’s arranged, as the title announces, as an alphabet, arranging brief essays in an A-to-Z by subject or theme. Some of the entries are anecdotal, some critical, some scholarly, some of fictional. Could you talk about how you arrived at the alphabetical organizational scheme, and what pleasures or pains its constraints gave you as you composed the book?
JP: I wanted to write a book that was open-ended and playful, in which I could include all kinds of different things, from very immediate, personal reflections, to art historical observations, to almost philosophic speculations. For a number of years, I was making notes about Watteau, which took all different forms. I might come home from a party, or from an evening out with somebody, and write about the experience, and how it seemed to recall or echo some aspect of Watteau. As these notes built up, I tried to figure out a way to put them together that would keep them loose and free in relation to one another.
The idea of alphabet books has always fascinated me. I like children’s books that are in the form of alphabets, I like books in which under each letter there are different objects or topics that kick off different stories. The alphabet book is a form that is very clearly and basically ordered, and yet it can include all kinds of stuff. That quality appealed to me — it’s a childlike quality of being both structured and at the same time open and having room for the unexpected. I liked the idea of writing, in a sense, a children’s book for adults. [LAUGHS]
It was a great pleasure to be able to play around with that form as I worked on the book. Entries could go in radically different places, depending on how I labeled them. So I could move things around and push them here and there. The other interesting thing that happened was that there were certain letters — like, say, “U” or “V” — which didn’t suggest obvious entries. That would sometimes push my mind in directions I might not have gone otherwise. So I wouldn’t have written “Unconsciousness” — a little section that I think works pretty well — without the demands of “U”; it was literally the problem of what to put there that inspired the writing.
JM: Let me read another passage from “The Art of Seeing”:
What people are no longer prepared for is seeing as an experience that takes place in time. They have ceased to believe that a painting or sculpture is a structure with a meaning that unfolds as we look. This endangered experience is not a matter of imagining a narrative; it involves, rather, the more fundamental activity of relating part to part.
You write eloquently about how looking at Watteau’s work goes some way to “rescuing” this endangered experience — how his paintings, if you will, instruct us in appreciating the way seeing can unfold in time, and in the way the parts of a composition can relate. The entry under “Capriccio” in Antoine’s Alphabet begins:
Capriccio. Not the construction but the unfolding or unfurling of a world, a mysterious movement, delicately meandering, full of S-curves and zigzags, forever decentering, snaking and circling, leaping forward in great arcs and pulling back in tight curls-this is the impulse behind Watteau’s art. Whether in the twisted fingers of a young lover in a drawing or in the pileup of pleasure seekers in one of his grandest oil paintings.
JP: The moment of Watteau, which is the early 18th century, is a very interesting period in the history of art, as it is an interesting period in the history of the world. In France, it was a time when the rigid, hierarchical world of Louis XIV was giving way to a different kind of aristocratic and upper-class social life and interaction; there are foreshadowings of the age of revolution to come. It is a time when a lot of highly educated, wealthy people want to live in a more open, experimental way. You see these social shifts reflected in 18th century interior decoration – in the birth of the rococo, of which Watteau is really a kind of father figure. Rococo furniture and interiors reflect a spirit of playfulness, intimacy, informality, and you won’t find much of that if you look back to the 17th century. Early 18th-century art and literature is full of fresh ideas — ideas about forms that are asymmetrical, that are surprisingly organic, that have a decentralized, improvisational power.
In the 18th-century conversation about these ideas, certain words kept coming up; the two most important were “arabesque” and “capriccio.” The arabesque, which of course was rooted in the idea of an Arabian style, derives from people’s observations of things like Persian carpets, in which you have these winding, meandering patterns — a curl of leaf will turn into an animal’s head, and that will turn into something else. Capriccio is a word that people who listen to music know, it suggests a kind of improvisation, something jazzy and intuitive and unexpected.
The arabesque and the capriccio suggest a work of art that isn’t prepared in advance, a work of art that invites us to watch the unfolding of a thought process-and this new, open-ended sensibility is central to the art of the 18th century. You find the beginning of this new way of thinking about art – and, really, about experience – in the drawings and paintings that Watteau was doing at the very beginning of the century. One reason that Watteau is such a great artist to look at is that there’s a casualness and an informality about his work, an openness that’s very inviting. When you look at one of Watteau’s paintings, you don’t necessarily know where to look first. He doesn’t necessarily give you a clearly laid-out path. You don’t have the feeling he’s saying, “Start over here on the left and finish over here on the right.” You start looking, and some faces, maybe even in the background, will attract you, and you’ll look for a while at this beautiful blonde woman’s face, seen in profile. Then you’ll notice these wonderful feathery trees over on the left. Then you’ll notice the very interesting direction of a couple of figures, a man and a woman, in the middle of the painting. You kind of float or flit from place to place, landing somewhere for a while and then landing somewhere else.
The more I look at art, the more I feel that this kind of relaxed, evolving experience is what it’s really about. I believe that the greatest artistic experiences are never too rigidly controlled. For instance, you can look at a painting, or a figure in a painting, and think, “Gee, that reminds me of so-and-so.” Then maybe you’ll find yourself thinking about this friend of yours for a little while. Then you go back to the painting, and you look at something else, and maybe now you focus on an 18th century costume that a guy is wearing, so you consider costumes a while, until your eye is caught by somebody holding a fan. You think about, oh, the idea of a fan and what you can do with a fan. One of the marvelous things about looking at a painting is that it can stimulate all these different reactions, and the next time you go to it, you may see it in a different way entirely. Unfortunately, often when people talk about painting they kind of close it down. They say, “It’s got to be this way, not that way.”
Watteau encourages open-ended looking. You see it right from the beginning, when his friends look at the paintings at the time he’s painting them; they talk about not quite knowing what the paintings are about. Even what’s perhaps his most famous painting, The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, was puzzling to the 18th century audience; there’s an uncertainty about whether The Pilgrimage depicts people going to the isle of love, or coming back from the isle of love. In fact, there’s an interesting story about a title being given to the painting, then being crossed out in the official records of the French Academy, when Watteau was inducted. So the enigmas are there from the start. Although the uncertainties can sometimes feel confounding, I think they can also be very liberating, and when you talk about an artist who Verlaine and Beckett and Picasso and Cézanne loved, that’s part of what they love in him.
JM: You’re talking about looking at art as an experience informed by the rest of our lives, rather than as a kind of simpler processing of fact or scholarship or critical assessment. I was listening a couple of years ago to Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, talking to a group of young people about listening to a piece of classical music; I think it was Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The kids are in the concert hall, and the orchestra is about to play; instead of going on about Mahler’s place in musical history, and exhorting the audience to pay close attention to each and every note, Tilson Thomas, if I remember correctly, tells them something along these lines: “Just follow the music, and even if you fall asleep for a few minutes, that’s okay, because it’s a wonderful experience to wake up into this sound world.” In other words, make the appreciation of music — or art — your own, in the experience of it.
JP: What you just said is wonderful in terms of Watteau, because of course many of his paintings include people playing music, and other people reacting to it on multiple levels: some seem to be listening to the music, some are dancing to it, but others seem to be ignoring it.
There is also an interesting question in Watteau about his relationship to the theater of his time. Many people have theorized that the compositions in some of his paintings are based on scenes from plays. But although people have looked very carefully through a lot of the theatrical literature, nobody has been able to make clear connections. Probably he took elements from plays to incorporate in his paintings, but then shifted them as he worked. So you have paintings in which people are in, if you will, different modes of being public or private — different modes of self-presentation, you might say. Some people are actually acting, while others are engaged in the kind of acting we all do in our daily lives. Then you also have people in Watteau’s paintings who are reflecting, who are in a kind of inward, contemplative state.
That’s one of the things I especially love about his work: he is always presenting different levels of social interaction. I think that reflects something that I know is true of me, and I suspect is true of everyone. We love to be with other people — we love to be out there in the world, that is a part of who we are. But we can also find all that social interaction exhausting, and so there’s also a desire to retreat and be alone with oneself. When you look at some of Watteau’s paintings that have 12 or 15 figures, you see people in both those states — and everywhere in between. Sometimes you’ll have two lovers who embody the different states at the same time — the guy is coming on strong, the woman is obviously interested, but the look on her face also tells you that there’s a part of her mind that is off somewhere else, that she’s thinking her own thoughts. To me, that’s how things are.
JM: One of the revelations of your book, to me at least, is Samuel Beckett’s fascination with Watteau. Throughout the book, in fact, you make many insightful connections between Watteau and writers and works of literature, but Beckett’s presence in your pages was a surprise. What do you think drew him to Watteau’s charms?
JP: As you know, Beckett was fascinated with the visual arts in general. He was close to various painters; Jack Yeats, William Butler Yeats’s brother and a very well-known Irish painter, was one. He was close as well to a number of artists in Paris. He was friends with Giacometti, the sculptor, and quite close to the painter Bram Van Velde. I think for Beckett the big fascination of painting was that every canvas is like a stage, and he was very interested in that question of the stage picture. He fell in love with Watteau very early, when he was a young man traveling in Germany, where there are many great Watteaus to be seen. In those paintings, I think, Beckett admired a world that was elegant, that was very theatrical, but at the same time, carried within it a great sense of the mysteries of the psyche, its sheer weight. While there’s a sense in Watteau of a surface that is very elegant, quick, and light, there is at the same time a weightiness, a gravity beneath.
Watteau loved the commedia dell’arte, the Harlequins and Pierrots, these figures who are sometimes comic but never without darker shadows. Beckett’s world has connections to that — it has an ascetic spareness to it, as well as a ridiculousness, a sense of odd situations; and beneath all of that there is the tremendous weight of what life is. I think Beckett responded to Watteau’s genius for presenting heavy experiences without a lot of heavy drama – to Watteau’s belief that deep, dark feelings can be presented in a relatively simple, elegant way.
JM: Let’s talk a little bit about how Watteau worked. In Antoine’s Alphabet, you write that Watteau “always worked as if he never knew what was coming next, filling sheets with helter-skelter studies of heads and hands and entire figures and then combining and recombining those sketches into increasingly complex structures — this compositional principle,” you conclude, “will take on the weight not so much of an artistic principle, although it is surely that, but of a philosophic principle.”
JP: Watteau’s friends say that he talked very little, at least about his work. One imagines Watteau in the corner at a big party, watching everything very, very carefully. I think drawing was his way of taking in the world. There is a good deal of mystery about the nature of his sex life. Nobody really knows. There are all kinds of theories. But I think one thing is for sure. Here is a man who, with that pencil and those colored chalks in hand, was always taking in the world, and taking in the world not as a complete picture. It’s not the party as a complete scene that interests him; what he most cares about is a particular woman holding a fan; or a man seen from the back; or a woman in profile, looking the other way. It can be almost cinematic sometimes — you feel him watching somebody as they move their arm.
It’s a world that is absorbed in fragments, in vignettes really. I think this is a philosophic principle, in the sense that part of what Watteau is saying is, “You can’t ever see the complete picture. There is no complete picture. The world is something that we experience in parts, piece by piece.” That seems right to me. I can go out to dinner with somebody, and I’ll have ten minutes where I’ll feel great – when we’re having a great conversation, and this is my best friend, and it’s all so fantastic; and then, ten minutes later, I’m feeling uncomfortable or alienated, and I don’t quite know where we’re going with our conversation. In a way, I think Watteau is illustrating that kind of variegated experience through these intense visual fragments that he gathers in his sketchbooks. Then when he turns to the paintings, what he does is pick out a group of two figures from one drawing, a woman seen from the back from another drawing, and combine both with a man from another drawing. In the paintings, it’s almost as if life is under construction.
Again, I think that’s how a lot of us feel about life. We have those moments in which everything crystallizes-and there are certainly places in Watteau’s work where you just feel, “My God, it could not be better than this.” But even then, the paintings tend to fade out at the edges; Watteau does not define the edges of the painting very clearly most of the time. His brushstrokes get kind of washy and vague. I think partly what he’s saying is, “I can’t complete it; it’s not going to be complete; it’s always incomplete.”
JM: So it’s a kind of painting from life, philosophically speaking.
JM: This book, in many ways, is a personal testament: in its synthesis of seeing and reflection, we might call it your life in looking. The last section is especially beautiful in this regard; it begins with an invocation of one of the earliest painters to whom history has attached a name, Zeuxis (I had been wondering all along what you would do with “Z”!), then tellingly evokes your own youthful introduction to “painting’s primal power” in your grandparents’ living room. From the birth of painting to the birth of the critic, it amplifies the theme of “seeing through time” that you have been exploring through individual works throughout the book; historical time, Watteau’s life and times, the time of your own life, all come together in those last few pages.
JP: My parents were progressive, modern people, so we had white walls and a few reproductions. But my mother’s parents lived in a house in Brooklyn in which the interior had been painted by an old-fashioned house painter who knew how to do fake finishes and the like. One of the things that fascinated me when I was a little boy in my grandparents’ house was that the woodwork — the wooden doors and the wooden staircase — had been painted to imitate wood. Years later I learned that Braque himself had been trained to do this kind of work as a young man; it was a traditional skill. (And in cubist paintings and collages, of course, there is painted trompe l’oeil and illusionistic wood, which takes that kind of play to another level.) But there it was, in my grandparents’ house.
There were other things: in one of the bedrooms, the walls had been painted plaid, sort of painted to look like wallpaper. In my grandparents’ bedroom, there were these big flowers painted near the ceiling. In the living room, over the couch, there was a classical landscape painted on the wall, with a kind of temple represented. It was a very simple painting, and I suppose you could say it was kind of amateurish. But as I would sit watching TV in the living room, I would look over there, and this wall in this house in Brooklyn turned into a classical landscape, which I realized was an island. Looking back, I might even say it was a kind of Cythera, an island of love, although there were no people on it. In any case, I was just fascinated by the way a man with a brush and some pots of paint could take the walls of a house and turn them into other things. It was the simplicity of it, I think, the primal quality of what was being done that hit me deeper than I knew at the time. Once again it was a process of transformation, a changing of one thing into another.
Now, I guess you could say that all art is that; in painting, for example, you take a flat, inert surface and make it into something else. The idea of painting wood to look like wood is just an added flip on top of the fundamental transformation, heightening the illusionistic and playful qualities. I was enchanted by that visual playfulness in my grandparents’ home, and I guess I bring that early enchantment — or my hunger for that enchantment — to every encounter with a work of art.
JM: What has always drawn me to your writing is the way that, even when you are writing about contemporary art, you take private perceptions and make them public, as if gallery-going might be a kind of exploration in public of a deeper privacy — almost as if looking at paintings can be used as an objective correlative of the inner life.
JP: I’ve always felt that critics, really good critics, are conducting in the formal context of writing essays a conversation that all of us who care about the arts are having with friends, or having in our own heads. I know this because when I was growing up, when I was in my teens and twenties, I was drawn to critics with whom I felt, as I read them, that I was having a conversation. The intensity of their experiences was something I reacted to.
I think that our experience of the arts is one of the ways that we get to know each other. Two people come out of a movie, and what’s the first thing that happens? Somebody says, “What did you think?” And a conversation ensues. It can be a conversation about all kinds of things. Sometimes it gets into sexual politics, or it can be about the quality of somebody’s performance. But books, movies, paintings, musicals, these are things that are grist for some of the most important interactions we have with each other. I think criticism is a part of that.
It makes me very happy when somebody says to me about something I wrote, “Well, I don’t agree with you; I think this artist who you liked is not good at all (or vice-versa) — but I really liked reading your piece. I appreciated your argument. I was there with you all the way, although I don’t agree.” For me, that’s what the essence here is; it’s the intensity of the interactions, and communicating it in the conversations we have.
JM: Well, you invite readers into that kind of conversation throughout this lovely and unexpected book.
JP: Thank you very much.
JM: Perhaps you could close by giving readers some idea of where in the United States they can view important paintings by Watteau.
JP: There are about half a dozen places. Starting on the East Coast, there’s a great Watteau in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, “La Perspective.” The Metropolitan in New York has two fantastic paintings, “Mezzetin,” a wonderful man playing his guitar, which I begin the book with; and another called “The French Comedians,” an amazing painting that plays with the idea of people being on- and off- stage. The Frick Collection in New York also has a wonderful painting of soldiers at rest.
In the National Gallery in Washington, DC, there’s a painting called “The Italian Comedians” which is not in the best condition. It’s a wonderful composition with a Pierrot standing in the middle, very proud, surrounded by a whole flock of actors. The surface of the painting has probably been restored a lot, so it doesn’t have that incredible, strange liveliness that you see in the greatest Watteau surfaces.
The Kimball in Houston has a wonderful painting of children, with a child Pierrot sitting in the middle. Children are great subjects for Watteau, because there’s something, in some ways, so childlike about his work; he often speaks to that aspect of us that just wants to say, “Let’s just go out and have a picnic and flirt and see what happens.” The work in the Kimball is actually a painting of children doing that, and of course, they look sort of grave and serious, as if they want to be grownups.
In California, there are a number of wonderful Watteaus. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has one of the very rare Watteau nudes, a gorgeous reclining figure, which may have originally been part of a composition with another figure — the painting was probably cut down from a larger work. It’s rather mysterious what exactly the subject of the original painting was. The Los Angeles County Museum has a beautiful outdoor party scene, and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco has a wonderful painting of a few people sitting on a bench, including a woman with a fan; it’s one of the great paintings of flirtation. Those are the places that come immediately to mind.
August 21, 2008