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Prints and Drawings
18th century

Author(s):
Boyer Sarah

A famous drawing from the Goncourt Collection, this Flora is a study for Spring, one of four paintings of the seasons to decorate the dining room at the home of Pierre Crozat, where Watteau was then lodging. It is one of his first major nude studies, a genre he would venture upon occasionally. He rarely treated mythological subjects, which since Coypel had been pleasant pretexts for a nudity testifying to an ever more sensitive understanding of form, modelling, and the rendering of skin.

A charming young woman

Three of the Seasons pose the problem of the nude and the oval format. Crowned by Zephyr, Flora is shown seated on clouds, in a strongly-receding perspective, in the same position in both painting and drawing. The nude is of imposing proportions and ample forms, heightened in white, its sensuality emphasized by the elongated limbs and the angle of the trunk. Although clumsy with the half-crossed legs (later corrected in a rearrangement of Flora's posture to relate her to the figure of Zephyr and the form of the frame), Watteau excels himself in the softness and freedom of the facture. The lighting and the pictorial treatment recall his Titian-inspired Lady at her Toilet (Wallace Collection, London), while the blue and white tones in the hair, skin, and drapery, like the silveriness of the painting, are indebted to Veronese's use of colors. Slightly plump, the two women represent an ideal quite opposed to the slender figures of his last works.

A veiled but ardent gaze

The preparatory studies for the cycle reveal the project's unusual scale and ambition. Flora recalls the nudes of older contemporaries: Coypel, Boullongne and La Fosse. Like them, Watteau employs the black, red and white chalks normally used for this type of study, with white used to highlight the folds of the draperies, and rare touches of red chalk on the darker shadows giving warmth and color to head, hands and feet. There is no pen and ink; Watteau uses the paper to introduce light. Dynamism of gesture distinguishes this figure from the drier, colder studies of Watteau's teachers: inspired first by the academic style of La Fosse, who was involved in developing the decorative program, Watteau made extensive changes in the execution of the painting to produce a more animated composition, better suited to being seen from below. While La Fosse also personified Spring by Zephyr and Flora, as seen in two of his own drawings, his compositions were distinctly different from Watteau's.

Problems of date?

The sensuality produced by the "three crayon" technique, used to render the highlights and the tones of the skin, gives Flora vitality. There is a hint of tenderness in her pose and her relationship to Zephyr - hardly visible on the left of the picture. The painting differs from the drawing in the arrangement of the drapery, the contents of the basket and the supple abandon of the pose. The virtuosity of technique, bold design, dramatic lighting and sharp facial features are all characteristic of the artist's maturity, but the cycle cannot be dated precisely: executed later than 1712, when Watteau came to La Fosse's notice shortly after his election to the Académie, it was possibly completed in 1716, after Crozat's return from Italy, and surely by around 1717, when Watteau completed the Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (INV. 8525). The harmonious combination of strength and grace in Flora's attitude, the facture of the drawing and the technique all suggest a late date.

Bibliography

M. M. Grasselli, in Watteau 1684-1721, cat. exp. Washington, National Gallery of Art, 17 juin - 23 septembre 1984 ; Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 23 octobre 1984 - 28 juin 1985 ; Berlin, Charlottenburg, 22 février - 26 mai 1985, pp. 183-184, n 105.
F. Moureau, M. M. Grasselli, Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) : le peintre, son temps et sa légende, colloque international, Paris, Grand Palais, 1984, Genève Paris, Éditions Clairefontaine, 1987.
P. Rosenberg, L.-A. Prat, Antoine Watteau 1684-1721 : catalogue raisonné des dessins, Milan, Leonardo arte, 1996, pp. 1014-1015, n 596.
J. A. Plax, Watteau and the cultural politics of eighteenth-century France, Cambridge ; New York ; Melbourne [etc.], Cambridge University Press, 2000.
M. Vidal, Watteau's painted conversations : art, literature, and talk in seventeenth-and eighteenth-centuries France, Londres, New Haven, Yale university press, 1992.
P. Rosenberg, Des Dessins de Watteau, Tokyo, Chuo-koron Bijutsu shuppan, 1995.
P. Rosenberg, Watteau et son cercle dans les collections de l'Institut de France, cat. exp. Chantilly, Musée Condé, 3 octobre 1996 - 6 janvier 1997.
A. Wintermute, C. B. Bailey, P. Rosenberg, Watteau and his world : French drawing from 1700 to 1750, cat. exp. New York, Frick collection, 19 octobre 1999 - 9 janvier 2000 ; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 11 février - 8 mai 2000.
R. Temperini, Watteau, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2002.
C. B. Bailey, P. Conisbee, T. W. Gaehtgens, Au temps de Watteau, Chardin et Fragonard, cat. exp. Ottawa, musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, 6 juin - 7 septembre 2003 ; Washington, National Gallery of Art, 13 octobre 2003 - 11 janvier 2004 ; Berlin, Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, 8 février - 9 mai 2004.

Technical description

  • Antoine WATTEAU Valenciennes, 1684 - Nogent-sur-Marne, 1721

    Flora

    Between 1712 and 1717

    Edmond and Jules de Goncourt Collection; Isaac de Camondo Collection

  • Black and red chalks with white heightening on buff paper

    H. 32.6 cm; W. 28.3 cm

  • Isaac de Camondo Collection; bequeathed to the Louvre in 1911

    RF4111

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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