Rococo reverie: Watteau's "Les Champs Elysées", one of the paintings currently on display at the Wallace Collection
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) died of tuberculosis aged 37. He left behind a host of admirers but no wife, no children and few friends. He seems to have been a hard man to like: "cold and indifferent", "gloomy", "not very affectionate", "caustic" and "chilly" — such comments pepper the recollections of those who knew him. Yet apart from a recurrent yet delicate strain of melancholy in his art, his paintings are paeans to love and human sensibility. It was Watteau who invented an entirely new category of painting — the fête galante — in which graceful and elegant figures disport themselves in faux-pastoral settings, with the accompaniment of music and surrounded by the Harlequins and Columbines of the "Commedia dell'Arte." His pictures represent the informal hinterland of Louis XIV's pomp-ridden reign and mark the point at which the grandiosities of the Baroque shifted towards the frivolities and delights of the Rococo. This prickly man, so hard to please and so ill at ease with others, seems an unlikely character to help bring about such a transformation.
Watteau has a hold on British imaginations too. He visited England for a year from 1719, probably to consult the celebrated physician Dr Richard Mead about his consumption, and consequently he has long had admirers here. His paintings were not universally appreciated however —indeed a late — 18th-century churchman derided them as embodying "the falsetto of French style and manners"— but his drawings have always been cherished. A pair of complementary exhibitions, Watteau: The Drawings at the Royal Academy and Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and his Circle at the Wallace Collection, now offer the chance to assess the relative strengths of his work.
Watteau himself saw a distinction in his art. His great patron, the picture dealer Gersaint, recalled that Watteau "was more satisfied with his drawings than his paintings and I can assure you that, in that respect, self-esteem hid none of his faults from him". That may well be because there were none to hide. Watteau, with the likes of Ingres and Schiele, was one of art's great draughtsmen. And he was a very prolific one too: he left more than 1,000 drawings in a bequest to his patron, the Abbé Haranger. The exhibition at the RA includes some 80 high-quality examples and is the first show here to be dedicated to his graphic work.