Saturday, 28 September 2013

Watteau's Persians

During the Persian ambassador's six-month stay in Paris, Watteau produced a number of fine drawings of members of his entourage in red and black chalk.  

There is no information about the exact circumstances under which they were created, though 18th-century annotations always state that they were "from life". Details of the costumes - the cloak, the breeches and shoes of the servant -  have occasionally been disputed, and it is sometimes said that Watteau used models rather than "real" Persians.  However, he was a close friend of Antoine Coypel, (painter of the Versailles reception) and could well have arranged for individual Persians to pose.

The drawings were created as finished studies rather than preliminary sketches for paintings and are normally grouped with a set of "Savoyards" of the same period as modern character studies. The exact details of how many exist and where is difficult to unravel without access to the full catalogues. According to the Louvre there were nine drawings - seven in red and black, one in red only and a final one in trois crayons (ie. red, black and white).  A set of six were later engraved by Boucher as part of Jean de Jullienne's collection of engravings after Watteau,  Figures de différents caractères (the "Recueils Jullienne").

Here are some of the better-known drawings:

A seated Persian (Louvre)

Seated Persian 
Louvre, Cabinet des dessins
301mm x 197mm

Engraving by Boucher

An old annotation on the back of this drawing identifies the sitter as Mehemet Reza Beg himself, clearly a mistake to judge by other depictions of the slight and bearded ambassador. This individual clearly fared rather better on the Persian diet!  Note though the man with a very similar moustache in Antoine Coypel's picture of the embassy's presentation at Versailles.

Seated man with fur hat

As engraved by Boucher

Seated man with fur hat
Teylers Museum, Haarlem
250mm x 212mm
This picture looks like the same man.  The fur cap is certainly authentic - the ambassador is wearing one in the Coypel miniature (where it contributes greatly to his surprised air).

A member of the Persian embassy

A member of the Persian embassy
Thaw Collection,
Pierpont Morgan Library New York
293mm x146mm
Seated Persian
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
276mm x 194mm

This second model is a more slender, almost feline, young man.  It is thought that the two drawings were once part of a single sheet of studies.

An Oriental servant

Oriental servant holding a plate
British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings
201mm x 101mm

Finally, the disputed Persian servant.  I don't know about the costume, but such serving men were certainly a conspicuous feature of the ambassador's entourage.


Notice for the "Seated Persian" in the Louvre. (in French)

Website to accompany the Louvre exhibition Antoine Watteau et l'art de l'estampe: recueils Jullienne, which includes a full e-version of the volumes of engravings after Watteau.

Study guide to the Royal Academy Spring Exhibition 2011 Watteau: the drawings. Contains a detailed discussion of the Louvre Persian.

Notice of a drawing sold by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at Sotheby's in 2007.  This is the drawing with white as well as red and black chalk, and features the same two models.

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