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Work Eight studies of heads

Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century

Huit études de têtes

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Boyer Sarah

These studies were probably drawn at various times in 1715 or 1716, in preparation for compositions. The first black youth in the top left corner appears in The Conversation (Toledo Museum of Art); the second and the woman at the bottom center feature in The Coquettes (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg). The third black man appears in Love in the Italian Theatre and as the oboist in The Country Dance (private collection). The hand holding a mask is reminiscent of The Enchanter (Brodick Castle).

Preparatory compositions

These studies are some of Watteau's best-known drawings. Most of the heads were studies for paintings, including the two studies of the head of the black youth. Watteau stumped the chalk drawing to achieve the boy's complexion. The first study on the left completes an earlier silhouette in red chalk of a valet standing holding a tray (British Museum, London), who also appears as the servant in The Conversation (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo). The second head appears in The Coquettes (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg), a small painting which also features the second head in the lower row, but without the hat. This same head also turns up in the center of the vessel in the Voyage to Cythera (Charlottenburg, Berlin). The features of the woman at the top are similar to those of a figure lit by a torch in the work Love in the Italian Theatre (Staatliche Museen, Berlin). The woman depicted bottom right, wearing a different hat, may also appear in the The Cascade (private collection). The oboist appears along with two other musicians in the Country Dance (private collection). The highly complex nature of the relationship between the drawings and the paintings begs the question of whether Watteau composed his paintings to transform certain faces after more detailed studies in pencil.

Watteau's early works

The extreme purity of the lines, the graphic accuracy, and the particular attention to detail evident in each study are reminiscent of the red chalk studies of figures dating from 1714, such as the Two men and a woman standing, now in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, although this drawing is larger and more powerful. The touches of black chalk on the lips of the first black youth and the touches of white on the eyelids of the second reveal Watteau's careful attention to detail. The heads are positioned more or less carefully-note the way Watteau avoids covering the study of the woman in the top row with part of the hat of the woman below. Again, this is similar to the regular positioning of the figures in the drawing in Dublin. The studies are unrelated. There is no reference to a single large-scale project here. This is an early work of Watteau's, very different from the studies of his artistic maturity, where the faces are positioned in relation to each other according to a predetermined plan.

A collection of poses

Watteau used this type of study throughout his career, telling us much about his personal working practices. He always worked the same way, taking up a position directly in front of the model, and then moving around to study the model from different angles, giving a series of brief poses that are touchingly life-like. Watteau was possessed of great intellectual curiosity and was fascinated by people from distant lands. Among his studies are drawings of the retinue of the Persian Ambassador who visited Versailles in 1715 and the young black man shown here, who was probably the servant of one of Watteau's friends. Using two shades of red chalk-orange and reddish-brown-as well as black chalk and touches of white where the light catches the skin, Watteau brings out the grain of the complexion. The youth features in The Concert in the Country (Wallace Collection, London). From the late 17th century and throughout the 18th, it was considered fashionable to employ young black servants, reflecting the French nobility's taste for all things exotic.


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, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 8 février - 9 mai 2004.

Technical description

  • Antoine Watteau (Valenciennes, 1684 - Nogent-sur-Marne, 1721)

    Eight studies of heads

    c. 1715-16

    Jean de Jullienne collection; M. de Montullé collection; sold in Paris on 19 November 1787, lot 12; M. d'Ymecourt collection

  • Black chalk, two shades of red chalk, white highlights and stump on grey paper

    H. 26.7 cm; L. 39.7 cm

  • Sale of M. d'Ymecourt collection in Paris on 21 April 1858, lot 77, purchased by the Louvre

    INV 33383

  • Prints and Drawings

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

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