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  • From the Playhouse to the Page: Visual Sources for Watteau’s Theatrical Universe
  • Josephine Touma (bio)

In 1748 the Comte de Caylus said of Antoine Watteau: “ses compositions n’ont aucun objet. Elles n’expriment le concours d’aucune passion et sont par conséquent, dépourvues d’une des plus piquantes parties de la peinture, je veux dire l’action.”1 Caylus’ pejorative overtones aside, the idea underpinning his summation—that Watteau’s paintings were essentially “subjectless”—continues to resonate. Two and a half centuries later, scholars still consider illegibility as a defining characteristic of Watteau’s paintings, concluding that they evade or even subvert any straightforward reading. Norman Bryson uses the term “semantic vacuum” to describe the dearth of narrative meaning in the pictures.2 The obfuscation or scrambling of legible signs in Watteau’s works reaches its highpoint in what are ostensibly scenes of leisure: the fêtes galantes, such as the two under examination here, La Perspective (circa 1715, fig. 1) and Les Plaisirs du Bal (circa 1716–17, fig. 2), where subtle allusions to the theater are detectable in the stage-like spaces or costumed figures. While accepting and often adopting Bryson’s notion, much Watteau scholarship seeks out meaning in these two dominant thematic strands of leisure and theatricality—from Mary Vidal’s landmark interpretation of Watteau’s works as open-ended “painted conversations” to Sarah R. Cohen’s study of the “artful” (rather than legible) patterns of dance and bodily movement.3 [End Page 83]

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Figure 1.

Antoine Watteau, La Perspective, circa 1715, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. Photograph © 2011 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

[End Page 84]

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Figure 2.

Antoine Watteau, Les Plaisirs du Bal, circa 1716–17, London: Dulwich Picture Gallery. By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

[End Page 85]

Theater is perhaps the most persistent theme in Watteau’s oeuvre, and it is the one that most tantalizingly invites a narrative reading, if only to frustrate. François Moureau claims that Watteau was “the French artist who best expressed the spirit of the theater . . . [but] he rarely evoked a definite dramatic moment or even a specific theater.” 4 According to Marianne Roland Michel, Watteau “never seems to try to represent a particular episode in a play. . . . He creates an atmosphere, suggests a scene or players in action, but most of the time it would be pointless to try and identify any specific subject.”5 More recent scholarship suggests that the pursuit of sources for Watteau’s subjects in contemporary theatrical productions is far from pointless. Most significantly, the recently published work of music historian Georgia J. Cowart identifies a rich ground of subject matter in a range of theatrical genres, most strikingly the Opéra-Ballet. Yet Cowart, like scholars before her, while citing these important sources of inspiration for Watteau, does not find literal narrative bases for his paintings. Her nuanced analysis of Watteau’s academic reception piece, Le Pélerinage à Cythére (1717) reveals a painting that is a product of multiple threads including the themes, mythologies, staging, music, and visual records of contemporary theatrical productions, rather than straightforward illustrations of their text(s).6

The theater is often invoked as a paradoxically appropriate theme for all this ambiguity. Lack of drama is precisely the point for Thomas Crow, who claims that Watteau, by merely dressing his figures in theatrical costume, but not providing them with any dramatic context, “posit[s] theatrical disguise as a condition of leisure and therefore of nobility.”7 Extending this idea, Julie Anne Plax finds a basis for the fêtes galantes in elite entertainments, where costume, masquerade, and shifting signs of social status signify “the new honnête homme in action, dabbling in a play of identities.”8

I would like to build upon these understandings of Watteau’s theatrical imperative by turning to a medium that has thus far been considered more by theater historians than by art historians: prints representing stages. These prints are the visual sources for the very shape of Watteau’s theatrical worlds—they inform the way in which he...


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pp. 83-101
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