Friday, November 13, 2009

Watteau: music and theater. through Nov 29 Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid through Nov 29

Metropolitan Museum of Art

For me Watteau seems like the kind of artist that's hard to not like. Maybe it's because I've been kind of obsessed with him for the last year or two, but this exhibition is to honor former director Philippe de Montebello, who called Watteau one of his favorite artists. So, apparently I'm not the only one. Watteau has a reputation as the master of sophisticated hedonism. I didn't make that up. I know I read that somewhere, and it seems pretty accurate. Toulouse-Lautrec may have been more of a hedonist, but Wateau was more sophisticated. I'm talking about the painting, not necessarily the subject matter. Watteau's subjects just look like they had more money than Toulouse-Lautrec's.

Anyway, this is a pretty small show that consists of just two rooms. One of drawings, and the other of paintings. Still, there are some real jewels to be found. Also, about a third of the work is not by Watteau but his contemporaries. This is to illustrate the artists influence on 18th century france, but it also draws attention to the qualitative difference between the work of some very skilled artists and that of an old master. The only artist who comes close to Watteau is Nicolas Lancret, who has some pretty impressive work in the show.

Watteau died very young at 37 which accounts for his somewhat small body of paintings, but he was a copious draftsman. Thank god for that, because he was magic with the colored chalk. Most of his drawings were done as studies for his paintings, but his light handed effortless way of rendering makes them stand out from his contemporaries, and function as independent works of art. His paintings also have a subtle elegance that makes them exceptional. He's as famous for his pallet of silvery greens and soft pinks as for his strange theatrical narratives. The interaction of his figures are enigmatic and appear almost otherworldly. These scenarios and the characters that make them up were based on the commedia dell'arte for which Watteau had once worked as a set and costume designer, and figures like Harlequin, Mezzetin, and Pierrot are staples in his work. He used these figures, and narratives to create a new genre of painting called the Fete Galante, which became very popular throuout Europe after his death in 1721.

Vermeer died soon before Watteau was born, which is just as well because I don't think they would have gotten along with each other anyway. Although, they did have a few things in common. They both died young (Vermeer at 45 and Watteau at 37). They both painted relatively small paintings with kind of dreamy ethereal narratives, and they both became hugely influential after their death. Watteau's painterliness, and exoticism though is in stark contrast to Vermeer's precise detailed studies of light and form, and his focus on humble everyday people and objects.

This show is similar though, in that it's small and made up largely of other artists work. Actually, in this case most of the work is by other artists and there are only 6 Vermeer's in the whole show including "The Milkmaid" which is on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. that's not too bad though considering that there are only about 35 Vermeer's known to exist in the world. All the other work in the show is part of the Met's permanent collection including the five other Vermeer's, which can be seen on exhibition all the time anyway. The show was put together to celebrate the anniversary of Henry Hudson doing something important. I can't remember what. Anyway, "The Milkmaid" is a beautiful painting, but I don't think it's his best. I don't think it's as good as "The Girl With A Pearl Earring", and it's certainly not as good as "View of Delft", but neither one of those are in the show.

Both these shows are closing pretty soon, so if you want to see them you've got to get off your ass and get over there. I probably should have reviewed them earlier, but you know I've got things to do.


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