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The 18th-century rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau is art critic Perl's favorite painter, one who transforms "powerful feelings-of love, friendship, lust, avidity, curiosity-into delectable artistic play" and "poetic pattern." Perl's exquisitely composed study is organized alphabetically; from "Actors" and "Art-for-Art's Sake" to "Zeuxis," and each chapter involves a theme, individual or movement related to Watteau. There are many delightful surprises, even to the reader familiar with the artist's oeuvre; Perl illuminates the links between Watteau's Harlequins and Pierrots and Beckett's characters, "so clownish and so heartrending." His entry on "Flirtation" expands this theme, ubiquitous in Watteau's paintings, into a profound commentary on love and metamorphosis. Perl's essays on Watteau's most famous works, The Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera and Gersaint's Shopsign, are equally inspired; Cythera displays what for Perl are Watteau's most poignant themes: the confounding of one's own emotions and the "elegant chaos" of the mind's consistently contradictory nature. Perl, art critic for the New Republic, has written a carefully researched, book of rare beauty and provocation. 44 illus. (Sept. 19)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.