Fully fleshed

Fisun Güner admires the delicate touch of a French rococo artist.

Watteau: the Drawings
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1

Esprit et vérité: Watteau and His Circle
Wallace Collection, London W1

Jean-Antoine Watteau was the son of a roof tiler. Born in Valenciennes, a city ceded by the Spanish Netherlands to France six years before his birth in 1684, he considered himself to be Flemish rather than French. In the wealthy Parisian circles he moved in as an artist - bourgeois rather than aristocratic, for his patrons were nearly all bankers and dealers - he thought of himself as an outsider. He had not trained in the French Academy, but instead honed his skills by copying Flemish and Venetian artists: Rubens, Veronese, Campagnola.

All this is worth noting because Watteau is associated with the frivolities of Regency France - the brief but culturally significant period in the early 18th century between the death of the pious Louis XIV and the reign of the libertine Louis XV. Watteau seemed to be the embodiment of the French rococo artist, or at least, in his short life (he died of tuberculosis, aged 36), its first notable proponent. He influenced lesser artists such as Fragonard and Boucher, who could not match him for depth and subtlety, nor for the melancholic undercurrents that make for a sensibility so attuned to our own.

A superb chronological survey of Watteau's works on paper now at the Royal Academy of Arts shows he can be admired for his drawings alone. As a draughtsman, he worked almost exclusively in chalk, displaying an astonishing lightness of touch. He initially used only red chalk, which lends the works warmth and vitality, and then perfected the trois crayons technique, subtly balancing red, black and white.

Having made a living as a young man by etching fashion plates, Watteau had a special gift for delineating the contours and textures of fabric. The heavy drapery of a woman's stripy dress, gathered in folds behind her as she sits with her back to us, is one arresting example here. The creases that perfectly outline her leaning posture, smoothing out at her buttocks, add an erotic dimension to an image in which the only naked flesh on view is one hand and the partial glimpse of a cheek. Who this woman might be and what she is doing remain a mystery.

Musicians, actors, dealers, collectors, Savoyard peasants, Persian diplomats, off-duty soldiers, black servants and children - as we progress from room to room, we see how fully fleshed these characters are. These are not compositional sketches but sympathetic portraits. The few nudes (Watteau, whose sex life remains a closed book, made and destroyed many) throb with a languid erotic tension.

Watteau prized his drawings more highly than his canvases; he felt that he was able to achieve with chalk a deftness and delicacy that he couldn't in oils. But a concurrent exhibition at the Wallace Collection justly celebrates his ability in that medium, too. Gathered in an upstairs gallery are the paintings in the permanent collection, while downstairs is an exhibition of contemporaneous works owned by Watteau's dealer Jean de Jullienne.

In the Watteau room, characters from the commedia dell'arte rub shoulders with stylish Parisians in gardens inspired by Renaissance paintings and the Jardins du Luxembourg. It all looks restrained but, in one canvas, Fête Galante in a Wooded Landscape with a Sculpture of a Seated Nude Woman (1719-21), the sculpture of the title looks lifelike and fleshy, underscoring the sexualised nature of these encounters.

The fête galante was a genre that Watteau invented. It is one in which reality and fantasy merge. We find that these paintings, in the mellow light of dusk and in their still and quiet intensity, are as much to do with the fragility and transience of life as they are with romantic couplings and playful encounters.

“Watteau: the Drawings" and "Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle" run until 5 June

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?