Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fêtes Vénitiennes, by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1718-19) at The Frick Collection

It is always a treat when one of New York’s major museums mounts a show that is scalable, smart and well-balanced, and that is what The Frick Collection in New York has done with its current Masterpieces From the Scottish National Gallery, on view through February 1, 2015.

The Frick has gathered 10 superb paintings from the collection, ranging from the Florentine Renaissance to 19th Century society pictures.  It includes wonderful works by such masters as Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, El Greco and Velazquez.  It is a show not to be missed.

The Scottish National Gallery was founded in 1850 in Edinburgh, and is one of the finest museums in the world.  It has an extraordinary collection of paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings – and the question of what to show at a traveling exhibition must have been a mighty one.

However, this bite-size show rises to that challenge – there is not a piece in it that is not a masterpiece in its own right.  Those not in New York should rest easy – the show will also travel to the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Between now and Thanksgiving I wanted to share my favorite pieces in the show in The Jade Sphinx.  We start with Fêtes Vénitiennes, painted by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), in 1718-19.

Watteau had a brief career, cut short by premature death, but his legacy has been long lasting and influential.  He veered away from the stuffy excesses of the prevalent Rococo style, and his use of color and movement was influential for decades after his death.

Watteau was deeply influenced by figures from commedia dell’arte while learning his craft in the workshop of Claude Gillot (1673-1722).  The actors from the commedia had been expelled from France for several years, but the costumes, masks and mummery were to loom large in his boyish imagination.

Watteau also created the genre of fêtes galantes, scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with a theatrical air. Some of his best known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian comedy and ballet. 

The picture on hand at the Frick is well within that tradition – and it is one before which I spent considerable time.  It is a picture that seems to generate feelings both celebratory and foreboding, as what is clearly a party also seems spooky and … uncanny.

The moody garden setting would not seem out-of-place in a pen-and-ink drawing by Edward Gorey, and the coloration seems both subtle and vibrant.

The figures, so clearly part of a costume party, add another note of the strange to the picture, where figures in fancy dress disport themselves in an atmosphere that is playfully erotic.

The air of erotic play is personified by the background statue that is blatantly sexualized, and by the two male figures on either side of the picture who gaze openly at the woman center-stage.  (I also like the blue-costumed figure in the back with a tricorn hat; an aesthete who looks on with a critical eye.)

There is also a private joke in the picture – the musette-playing fellow to the far right is Watteau himself, while the dancer in pantaloons and turban is Nicolas Vleughels, a Flemish painter, who was Watteau's friend and landlord.  The actual story of why they are represented in the painting has been lost to time.

Not easily seen in the reproduction here is the wonderful coloration – though painted in oil, it looks for all the world like pen and watercolor.  The dress of the central female figure is dazzling, and lightens up the whole picture, providing life and vitality to the proceedings.  The band of color that shimmers down her dress is almost the source of light in the piece, capturing, surely, the pearly rays of the moon.

This small picture (22x18) is a little master class in mood and tension through color and composition.  Be sure to see it.

Tomorrow:  Painting by Allan Ramsay!

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