I am reading a mysterious little book. It is like a river: with many streams and one source. I found it amongst the art books, looking small and out of place next to the other statuesque volumes. I liked the cover: the prim print; the gentle tint of colors: gray, sage and olive, soft as the breath of a forest.
The title was 'Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau And His World'. Now, I don't particularly enjoy Watteau – I always thought his frivolity rather doll-like – but this book attracted me.
I read a few sentences…and the words swam like painted fish through vibrant, singing water. Each chapter held its own letter; each letter its own story and each story a charming path leading to Watteau, his seductive comedies, his fetes gallants.
The book's petite essays sparkled like charms on a bracelet – they convinced me to look once more at its subject's paintings. And they were captivating, yes, but strangely bleak, too – in the way that all beauty is that dares to challenge intolerance and death armed only with her fair virtues. Wattteau himself would be dead four years after he painted 'The Festival Of Love':
Young men and women – porcelain children, as substantial as perfume - lie entwined on an island of light, warmed by a gracious sun. But their giddiness is threatened: encroaching shadows, envious depths, grasp at the shallow playthings. The woman wearing a silver sacque dress that dissolves into a pool of satin and pleats is in danger of being engulfed altogether. Her companion, tousled cape at his side, lies by her patiently, as eager to see her face as we are. Perhaps she is contemplating an answer – or a question – and looking at him would betray everything.
The couples wrestle and flirt; hands are raised and eyes are lowered in mock protestation. Blouses sparkle, embroideries glint, stockings and dainty feet are exposed, wisps of hair lay against flushed cheeks. Airs by Scarlatti and Vivaldi play lightly, like blossoms crumbling in the wind.
Shadowy figures recline in the distance, hiding behind a waterfall of dusk and winsome radiance. A ghostly couple leans against one of the trees, deep in discussion, too emotionally involved to have noticed the passage of decades and to realize that no one can see them anymore.
Free from the decadent control of Versailles, they frolic in a genteel, pastel landscape: selfish and careless. As a statue of Venus and Cupid presides over their entertainments, the ladies and gentlemen enjoy their sentimentality.
But they don't have much time; night is about to fall.