Antoine's Alphabet

Antoine's Alphabet

by Jed Perl

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Antoine Watteau, one of the most mysterious painters who ever lived, is the inspiration for this delightful investigation of the tangled relationship between art and life. Weaving together historical fact and personal reflections, the influential art critic Jed Perl reconstructs the amazing story of this pioneering bohemian artist who, although he died in 1721, when he was only thirty-six, has influenced innumerable painters and writers in the centuries since—and whose work continues to deepen our understanding of the place that love, friendship, and pleasure have in our daily lives.

Perl creates an astonishing experience by gathering his reflections on this “master of silken surfaces and elusive emotions” in the form of an alphabet—a fairy tale for adults—giving us a new way to think about art. This brilliant collage of a book is a hunt for the treasure of Watteau’s life and vision that encompasses the glamour and intrigue of eighteenth-century Paris, the riotous history of Harlequin and Pierrot, and the work of such modern giants as Cézanne, Picasso, and Samuel Beckett.

By turns somber and beguiling, analytical and impressionistic, Antoine’s Alphabet reaffirms the contemporary relevance of the greatest of all painters of young love and imperishable dreams. It is a book to savor, to share, to return to again and again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307270450
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/09/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Jed Perl was born in New York and studied art history and painting at Columbia University. Since 1994 he has been the art critic at The New Republic. His books include Paris Without End, Eyewitness, and New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century. He lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt


Actors. For Watteau, life is a casting call, an audition, a rehearsal, a coaching session, an intermission, an opening-night party, a day spent in idleness after the play has shut down. Although Watteau’s paintings are saturated with the life of the theater—with figures in theatrical costumes, with theatrical gestures, with richly decorated porticoes and loggias that suggest the contained world of the stage—the more I look at his paintings, the more forcibly it’s brought to mind how few of his characters are actually onstage. The strictly delimited world of the stage is too readily comprehensible to really interest Watteau. An actor on a stage is a personality, a figure, and Watteau is fascinated, above all else, by the impossibility of ever being sure of who you are, at least for more than a very brief time. He is a master of in-between situations, less interested in life as a stage than in the preparations for going onstage, or how actors feel after they’ve made their exits. It’s not the performer in performance so much as the mentality of the performer that fascinates him. He’s obsessed with maskings and unmaskings, with grand gestures and whispered asides, with the moment of disarming honesty that is set in sharp contrast to the actor’s generally armored personality. And he views such behavior—the histrionics and the feints, the approaches and the withdrawals—not as characteristic of actors in particular but as typical of men and women in general.

Antony. At the time of his death in 1721 at the age of thirty-six, Watteau was a famous figure in Paris, with his share of devoted friends. The nuggets of reliable information about his life, however, are few and far between, so that every attempt to construct a biography from what scattered facts there are appears bound to fail. In accounts of Watteau’s life, the artist himself is always at best caught in the process of disappearing from view, and it is the genius of Walter Pater’s portrait of Watteau, “A Prince of Court Painters,” that in assembling and readjusting some of the facts of the artist’s life, this English essayist whose work is at once so luxuriant and so severe, constructs a fable about Watteau that is truer to what we feel when we’re looking at his paintings and drawings than a more straightforward account could possibly be. Published in 1885 in Macmillan’s Magazine and later included in the collection Imaginary Portraits, Pater’s essay is a masterpiece of oblique storytelling. By relating the triumphs of Watteau’s Parisian career from the vantage point of a childhood friend, a young woman who remains in what amounts to the backstage or offstage world of Watteau’s hometown of Valenciennes in northeastern France, Pater imagines Watteau himself as the archetypal in-between figure. For Marie-Marguerite, the narrator of the story, this man whom she knows as Antony and with whom she has been in love since they were children appears to be at home neither in the Valenciennes that he left to make his fortune and to which he occasionally returns nor in the glittery Parisian world that Marie-Marguerite can barely comprehend.

Pater’s portrait, subtitled “Extracts from an Old French Journal,” is a craftily constructed story, and not the least of the craft has to do with the fact that Pater’s fictional journal keeper was also a real person whose surname happened to be Pater. Marie-Marguerite was the daughter of the Valenciennes sculptor Antoine Pater, who was a friend of Watteau’s. Marie-Marguerite, in Walter Pater’s telling, is watchful, discriminating, gently sentimental, fiercely insightful, a bit of a goody-goody, a bit of a priss. She is far too passionate and intelligent to be satisfied with the quiet life of Valenciennes, and as if in compensation, she has developed an almost frightening sensitivity to the moods of others, a sensitivity that mixes acute intuition with a certain degree of delusion, for to her the Parisian women who fascinate Watteau cannot be anything but poetic nincompoops. Marie-Marguerite is, of course, mostly an invention of Pater’s, but her younger brother, Jean-Baptiste, was indeed a student and follower of Watteau’s. And there is no question that Walter Pater savored the thought that he was writing the journal of another Pater, who was in turn writing the story of Watteau’s life, for it is reported that when the essayist was asked if he was related to Marie- Marguerite’s brother, the painter Jean-Baptiste, he said, “I think so; I believe so; I always say so.” Thus while Marie-Marguerite longs to love Watteau, Pater imagines himself as a part of the eighteenth- century Pater family that actually knew Watteau. Pater’s “A Prince of Court Painters” is something of a Chinese box construction, with Pater’s late-nineteenth-century essay, a triumph of fin de siècle delicacy, enclosing the fictional journal of a heartbroken young woman, which in turn encloses the life of Watteau.

The extraordinary arc of Watteau’s life, from his beginnings in Valenciennes to his death from tuberculosis near Paris in 1721, is told in a series of journal entries. Marie-Marguerite’s unrequited love for Watteau has given her the ability, or so she believes, to understand him better than anybody else. And the Watteau about whom she dreams is very much the figure that we know from a portrait drawn by another eighteenth-century painter, François Boucher. The tilt of Watteau’s head and the quick, glancing eyes give him the look of a man who thinks of himself as handsome and alluring in spite of the rather awkward way that his features fit in his large, somewhat fleshy face. Although there is dark poetry in his enormous eyes and aristocratic aggression in his long, sharp nose, there’s also a dose of middle-class matter-of-factness in this man who appears small, almost childlike, with his large head set on narrow shoulders. His long, curly hair flows straight into the furry edges of his coat, and the coat in turn leads us toward his hands, so animated as to seem nervous, the left one resting on a portfolio, the right one holding a stylus that contains the colored chalk with which he did his innumerable drawings.

Marie-Marguerite imagines that Watteau has remained the self- contained adolescent she knew, and she consoles herself in her disappointment at his lack of attentiveness by convincing herself that he can get along with nobody. When her brother, who has gone to study with Watteau in Paris, is ultimately turned out and returns to Valenciennes “with bitter tears in his eyes;—dismissed!” she cannot help feeling consoled. “Jean-Baptiste!” she writes in her journal, “he too, rejected by Antony! It makes our friendship and fraternal sympathy closer.” A few months earlier, on one of his rare returns to Valenciennes, Watteau had begun a portrait of Marie-Marguerite. But three years later the portrait is still not finished—“my own poor likeness, begun so long ago, still remains unfinished on the easel.” She justifies this to herself by considering that “it is pleasanter to him to sketch and plan than to paint and finish.” Then she is crushed when it turns out that he has finished a portrait of another woman, Mademoiselle Rosalba, a well-known painter. “She holds a lapful of white roses with her two hands,” Marie-Marguerite writes, going on to observe that this painting “will be engraved, to circulate and perpetuate it the better.” Watteau’s portrait of this woman whom Marie-Marguerite somehow regards as a rival—a portrait that has been finished and will be engraved—is a terrible blow, so that Marie-Marguerite turns ever more obsessively to her journal, which at least, as she puts it, “affords an escape for vain regrets, angers, impatience.”

What Marie-Marguerite views as Watteau’s rejection of her may well be something closer to indifference, but whatever his thoughts are about her, she comes to believe that something in the style of the work with which he has made his great reputation in Paris is “at variance, methinks, with his own singular gravity and even sadness of mien and mind.” Watteau, according to Marie-Marguerite, “seems, after all, not greatly to value that dainty world he is now privileged to enter.” “He hasn’t yet put off, in spite of all his late intercourse with the great world, his distant and preoccupied manner—a manner, it is true, the same to every one.” She consoles herself for his lack of interest in her by imagining that “it would have been better for him—he would have enjoyed a purer and more real happiness—had he remained here, obscure; as it might have been better for me!” It’s as if she sees her own whimpering disappointment reflected in the equivocations of his enchanted figures. And, indeed, her neurotic infatuation with his aloofness goes back to the first years when she knew him, for when she wrote of his drawings in a journal entry in 1701, he was already fully formed, at least so she believed. She had seen him at the time of a fair, “hoisted into one of those empty niches of the old Hôtel de Ville, sketching the scene to the life, but with a kind of grace—a marvelous tact of omission, as my father pointed out to us, in dealing with the vulgar reality seen from one’s own window.” He had “made trite old Harlequin, Clown, and Columbine seem like people in some fairyland.” That was his fascination, but it was a confounding fascination, because Marie-Marguerite, despite all her refinements, was part of the vulgar reality of Valenciennes.

This bright, good, pious girl wants Antony to be like her. The day after he’s ended one of his visits to Valenciennes, Marie-Marguerite is at early mass; she watches a bird that has flown into the church and can’t find a way out, and that bird suggests to her her own thwarted feelings. “The bird, taken captive by the ill-luck of a moment, retracing its issueless circles till it expires within the close vaulting of that real stone church:—human life may be like that bird too!” Much later, at the news of Watteau’s death, she finds some consolation in the thought that in his last days “he had been at work on a crucifix for the good curé of Nogent, liking little the crude one he possessed. He died with the sentiments of religion.” This little story about the crucifix—which, by the way, is true—confirms for Marie-Marguerite what she had suspected earlier, when, looking at the panels of the Four Seasons that Watteau designed for her family’s house, she’d reflected on “the purity of the room he has re-fashioned for us—a sort of moral purity; yet, in the forms and colors of things.” For this sweet but tough provincial girl, Watteau is a paradoxical saint, and there is surely something of Christian piety in her remark—in what are the last words of her journal—that he was always “a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.” Although for Marie-Marguerite that something is religion, the fact is that as the closing sentence of Walter Pater’s story has been read since it first appeared, that something is the religion of art. But surely Pater wants the doubleness of possibilities. “Something or something else—only give us some sort of meaning,” so Walter Pater is quietly pleading through the voice of this virginal woman.

Art-for-Art’s-Sake. The moderns dreamed of liberating beauty from the obligations of meaning, they conceived of beauty not as an idea or an ideal but as an irreducible sensation, an unforgettable kiss, a distillation of apprehensions and traditions and drives and desires and avidities, at once inevitable and serendipitous.


Backs. Consider a person’s back, a woman’s or a man’s, whichever interests you more. The back is both carapace and core. The back is a volte-face face, a second face without the easy familiarity of the face, a face that denies the understanding of a person that is centered on the eyes and the mouth. And this denial can be a fascination, a relief, an invitation in its own right. Instead of the eyes and the mouth, there is this monolithic form, this wall of flesh, soft or muscled or softly muscled, dense or delicate, straight or bent, all of which can, in its own way, suggest the essence of a person’s being. This is a face with its own kind of bilateral symmetry: the angled, mirrored shoulder blades; the muscles stretched over the rib cage; the deep, long cleft of the spine, full of coursing energies, descending from the head, animating the arms, the hands, the legs, the feet, and returning sense and sensation to the head.

However you look at it, the back has an extraordinary psychological power, a power that can be wonderful or disquieting or some combination of the two. Think of the back of a person you love. Or the back of a person you know very well. Or you may remember—vividly— the back of a person you hardly know at all. Consider the beauty or power or particular character of this back. Consider the emotions it inspires. You may be waiting for or wishing for this person to turn around so you can see more. Or you may have been through everything with this person and never want to see that face again. Or you may know that the turning away is only an interlude and that you will soon be happily face-to-face once more. Anybody who has experienced even one of these emotions, and the truth is that most of us have experienced all of them, can see that the back view is inviting, off- putting, seductive, mysterious, and many other things besides. Consider the phrase turning your back. This suggests a snub or an insult, if not outright rejection or total abandonment. And then there is backstabbing, an ultimate betrayal. But if somebody whose back is turned away begins to turn toward you, you may feel that you’re at the beginning of an adventure. The back can suggest avoidance, resistance, hostility, withdrawal (“Getting your back up.” “Backing away.”). But the back can also suggest inwardness, reticence, seduction, fascination (“Who’s the woman with her back to us?”).

Of course Watteau had a special feeling for the back—a passion for it, you might say. Think of his paintings, and you’re immediately thinking about a back: of the woman who stands on the lawn in the late afternoon, looking out at the vast garden where the young women and their admirers are winding down the day’s amusements; of the pairs of lovers who face each other or approach each other or avoid each other in such a way that you’re always seeing one of them from the back. I believe that Watteau’s sensitivity to these back views had a great deal to do with his familiarity with actors and dancers and musicians, for their work always depends on a feeling for the entirety of the body, not just the hands and the face but the back, chest, arms, legs, pelvis, thighs. The great performers act with their backs as well as with their faces. For Watteau, as much as for an actor or a choreographer, studying the back was not merely an ordinary daily activity, it was also the fabric of his working life, for as he drew the figure, which he did constantly, gathering together the sketches that would then flow into his paintings, he was always contemplating the back of the model.

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