The exhibition Watteau’s Century: 18th-Century French Drawings sees the Musée Cognacq-Jay present a selection of the finest drawings from the collections bequeathed by Ernest Cognacq, alongside new acquisitions made since 1990.
Watteau was France’s greatest exponent of the art of drawing, and takes pride of place in this exhibition with an exceptional set of ten red chalk and ‘trois crayons’ drawings, including a preparatory sketch for the artist’s celebrated Enseigne de Gersaint, his final great work.
This exhibition also casts new light on Watteau’s fascination with animal painting – an oft-neglected facet of his work – and also includes sketches depicting clowns, dancers and actors, familiar features of contemporary fêtes galantes.
Along with Boucher, Fragonard was the spiritual heir of Watteau and played a major role in popularising such festive scenes. He is represented here in the form of a handful of colour drawings – gouache and watercolour, materials he very rarely used – including his famous Happy Family scene.
The museum is home to an exceptionally rich collection of genre scenes in gouache and watercolour. The great eighteenth-century masters, adored in their own time and even more so in the following century, are all accounted for: Baudouin, Boucher’s son in law and the founder of the genre; Lavreince, a Swedish artist based in Paris who achieved significant acclaim towards the end of the reign of Louis XV; Mallet, his successor under Louis XVI; and of course Boilly, the pre-eminent master of this discipline in the Directory and First Empire periods.
These intimate scenes, ranging from the sentimental to the libertine to the downright bawdy, are glimpses of real and imagined lives in a century where love, art, fashion and conversation were the fundamental priorities of life. Others seem to owe a debt of inspiration to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with pastoral and landscape scenes from Huet and Moreau the elder offering an idealised view of country life.