Antoine Watteau, A Woman at her Toilet, c. 1717-19
The French painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is today regarded as one of the most influential artists of the eighteenth century. While he is chiefly famed for his subtle scenes of courtly gallantry, known as fêtes galantes, this painting is one of Watteau’s rare female nudes.
The depiction of ideal female beauty is one of the most popular motifs in Western art whose origins go back to Antiquity. This long-standing tradition justified the depiction of nudity and made it a respectable subject, as long as it was shown within a mythological or allegorical context.
Although Watteau’s composition recalls such works by Titian, Rubens and in particular an anonymous Flemish work, this painting shows a contemporary scene with undisguised eroticism: assisted by her maid the young woman is removing (or putting on) a chemise in her boudoir, while the excited lap-dog hints at the animal desires potentially provoked by this intimate scene. The shell and putto-head on the elaborately carved bed evoke the sphere of Venus, the goddess of love, and the ambiguity of her gaze, directed towards the viewer (or her visitor?), further heightens the erotic tension.
The creation process of the painting is equally unorthodox. The central figure is based on a drawing (now at the British Museum) whose individualised expression suggests that it was made after a life model. Although life drawing was an essential part of the artistic training at the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the models were exclusively male as drawing after female models was considered inappropriate. According to the Comte de Caylus, a collector, amateur and close friend of Watteau, he hired an atelier and female models to pose for himself and the artist, and it seems likely that the drawing would have been made in this private context. Although only five related drawings and two paintings by Watteau have survived, there may originally have been more: Caylus mentions that shortly before his death, the artist chose to destroy his erotic works, apparently considering them indecent.
It is not known who bought or possibly commissioned the painting from Watteau, but it would certainly have been intended for the owner’s private pleasure. It is unlikely that the work was known to the wider public and is tellingly not included in Jean de Jullienne’s printed reproductions of Watteau’s œuvre.
Thursday 2 and Tuesday 28 February at 1 pm with Laura Langelüddecke, Assistant Curator, in the Small Drawing Room.
J. Ingamells, The Wallace Collection. Catalogue of Pictures III: French before 1815 (London, 1992), pp. 370-372.
C. Vogtherr, Watteau at the Wallace Collection (London 2011), pp. 105-113