“Love is a canvas furnished by Nature and embroidered by imagination.” -Voltaire
Love in the Italian Theater (L’Amour au théâtre italien)
Watteau, Music, and Theater, on view at the Met through November 29, explores, in self-explanatory fashion, the place of music and theater in the work of the Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). If you’ve seen some of his work, you know theater is his main subject matter. He paints lush and detailed scenes populated by characters who might be part of the drama or watching it. Costumes are elaborate, and artifice abounds. This small exhibition of paintings and drawings is supplemented by musical instruments and other objects relating to opera-ballet and theater early in the 18th century.
Mezzetin, left, is one of his simpler compositions, and one of my favorite paintings in this exhibition. Mezzetin, whose name means “half-measure,” was one of the stock characters of Italian commedia dell’arte. He could be a deceived or a deceiving husband or servant. Here he appears wistful and lonely.
In a sense, it’s hard to account for the appeal of Watteau, who does charming fantasy scenes unpolluted by anything serious. ‘Charming’ seems too simple and small a word to explain his appeal. While they are charming, they can also be melancholy and ambiguous. Like in Mezzetin, a clown figure often appears isolated and melancholy. The scenes do not follow any known narrative, and we are unsure what the people feel.
Watteau was sickly, self-taught and died at 36 years of age, yet he managed to rise to prominence and further the development of Rococo art in France. Little is know about him, except that he was restless and utterly entranced by theater. Perhaps part of the appeal of Watteau’s paintings is the mystery around the artist as well as the ones he painted.
The Foursome (La Partie quarrée), ca. 1714