CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle

Exhibition: 12 March - 5 June 2011

From the museum website

In two exhibitions of great paintings, the Wallace Collection celebrates Antoine Watteau, the artist who died in his prime yet changed the course of French painting, and Jean de Jullienne, his publisher and one of France’s greatest collectors; a perfect accompaniment to the concurrent exhibition of Watteau drawings at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

The exhibitions will consist of a redisplay of the great Watteau canvasses in the Wallace Collection, in the intimate setting of the West Gallery at Hertford House; and downstairs, in the Collection’s Exhibition Galleries, significant masterworks of the 17th and 18th centuries by artists, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Greuze and Vernet, drawn from the collection of Watteau’s publisher and most important dealer, Jean de Jullienne.

The relationship between Watteau, the most influential artist of his time, and Jean de Jullienne, one of France’s most significant art collectors, represents a key moment in the development of French 18th-century painting and patronage. Within his short career, Watteau (1684-1721) changed the course of painting. He revitalized the Baroque style, and invented the fête galante, a novel category of genre painting depicting pastoral and idyllic compositions where stage characters of the French and Italian comedies mingle with fashionable contemporaries.

Jean de Jullienne (1686-1766), supported 18th-century contemporary artists. His strong interest in French art and Netherlandish painting, led the way for a new generation of rich Parisian collectors who had only loose connections with the French court. As a result, the 18th century saw the establishment of a new cultural avant-garde.

Jean de Jullienne is famous for his role as editor of and dealer in Watteau’s work, but a unique illustrated inventory of his collection from 1756, lent to the exhibition by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and on display for the first time, demonstrates the breadth of his tastes. ‘Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle’ includes works by: Rubens, Rembrandt, Wouwermans, Netscher, Bourdon, Carle Van Loo, Greuze and Claude-Joseph Vernet from Jullienne’s collection; the Wallace Collection’s group of eight Watteau paintings, and two Watteau paintings from the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London and York Art Gallery. The Watteau paintings present a rare opportunity to reassess this artist’s impact on the course of art history.

Watteau’s artistic innovations went beyond his invention of the fête galante. The French tradition of depicting the female nude in a domestic setting, rather than as a goddess or a nymph, began in the 18th century. Watteau’s A Lady at her Toilet in the Wallace Collection is an early example of what might have been considered a controversial painting in its day and is one of only three surviving paintings by the artist in this new erotic genre. Watteau is said to have later repented and ordered that these paintings should be destroyed on this death.

Watteau died of tuberculosis, probably aged thirty-seven, and Jean de Jullienne was responsible for distributing engravings of Watteau’s work after his death, thus ensuring the artist’s longevity.

The exhibition will provide an opportunity to present new research on the Wallace Collection’s Watteau paintings and view them in the context of more recent developments in Watteau studies.