Watteau's Eloquent Formalism

Antoine Watteau, Young Woman Wearing a Chemise, ca. 1718, black, red and white chalk, 6 3/4 x 8 inches (Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum)
Antoine Watteau, Young Woman Wearing a Chemise, ca. 1718, black, red and white chalk, 6 3/4 x 8 inches (Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum)

John Goodrich visits Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection and shares his observations about Watteau's striking formalism.

Goodrich writes: "Superficially, Watteau is all fanciful froth – charming subject matter, feathery modeling, a light, darting touch. But what distinguishes Watteau are his extraordinary and comprehensive intuitions about formal rhythms — in this case, how powerful diagonals, moving from lower left to upper right, pace the intervals of the figure’s height; how the measured circulation of limbs releases, forcefully, the unfolding zigzags of one foot, while the “other” – that is, the surrounding plane of bed or couch – opposes, tangibly pressuring the shin of the folding leg above. Experienced as animated forces, the figure’s gesture culminates, finally, in the quick twist of the head, looking back (serenely!) over the long, climbing undulations of her own arm. The figure’s contours burst with pressures that the mind reads as a human body, but our eyes absorb as a fantastical coherence of energies. The drawing is marks, but the marks (or more specifically, the momentum of their intervals) cohere as an intensely real but parallel version of life — not its physical duplication, but the most eloquent version possible in two dimensions. How radical."