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Work Study of a Woman Playing the Guitar, or Holding a Musical Score

Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century

Etudes de femme jouant de la guitare, ou tenant une partition

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Boyer Sarah

Music is a recurring theme in many of Watteau's works, especially in the fêtes galantes, a genre created by the Academy in 1717 expressly for Watteau, so that he might submit his reception piece, Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (INV. 8525). Watteau was interested in the music of his own time - it is at the heart of this study of three women - and he succeeded in expressing its equivalent in both drawings and paintings.

Suspended time

Dressed in a jacket with rolled tails, and a fluted ruff around her neck, the woman sitting on the left is holding a guitar of which only the base and the ribs are visible. The angle chosen hides the belly and neck of the instrument as well as the woman's fingers plucking the strings. In an unusual pose for a guitarist, she is listening carefully and not looking at her instrument. This figure is taken from a painting known as The Music Party (Wallace Collection, London), which Albert Pomme de Mirimonde, a major French scholar of musical iconography, interprets with the title Out of Tune. The theorbo player, looking at the woman, has not yet managed to tune his instrument; the bass viol player, who has already tuned his, is leaning on the back of her chair, and she is turning her face away. Watteau used the same figure, with her face lifted, in Harlequin, Pierrot, and Scapin, a painting known through Surugue's print. The more natural posture of the second woman appears in An Embarrassing Proposal (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg): the musician is turning away from the couple dancing to the sound of her guitar to whisper to a young woman sitting nearby. In the drawing, her attitude is more thoughtful, as she is concentrating on the sound. The singer holding a musical score is not found in any known work by Watteau or any print engraved after him. She is waiting for a sign from her partner to get up and sing. Time suspended, what better metaphor for music could Watteau offer?

A graphite drawing

Black chalk is seldom dominant in drawings. This study proves that Watteau mastered this medium just as well as red chalk. The brightness of the lighting effects, the fullness of the forms, subtlety of the nuances, the sumptuousness of the draperies, and the gleam of the surfaces suggest his red chalk studies. Graphite also plays an important role. Uncommon at the time, it is used for a light preparatory line completed with chalk. In the Festival of Love (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), it is an integral part of the work in the figure studies, adding a color, a nuance and different tones: an extra colored note added to the traditional three chalks, but it never replaces black chalk. For viewers used to intense blacks, the delicate grays of the graphite may seem pallid. Yet they add nuances to the effects of red chalk and add variety to the black, giving the draperies an appealing silvery look. Graphite or black lead appeared about 1714; its origin is obscure and it marks neither a manner nor a period in Watteau's career. The striking resemblance between the model and the woman who posed for one of the studies of Embarkment for Cythera, in Berlin (Charlottenburg), as well as technical similarities in the treatment of the face, suggest a date of 1717-18.


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)

    Study of a Woman Playing the Guitar, or Holding a Musical Score

    Circa 1717-18

  • Graphite, black chalk, red chalk, and white highlights

    H. 22.50 cm; W. 29.40 cm

  • Aimé-Charles Horace His de la Salle Collection, donation in 1878

    RF 774

  • Prints and Drawings

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

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