The three-hundredth-birthday exhibition of paintings and drawings by Watteau currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington is spellbinding.[1] I felt euphoric as I explored the three rooms full of paintings. Gersaint’s Shopsign struck me as one of the masterpieces of Western art, comparable in the largeness of its achievement to the Parthenon frieze, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, and some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Yet every time I try to account, in words, for my experience of Watteau’s paintings, what I write seems strangely out of scale. Of the supremely rich Pleasures of the Dance I made these notes while I was at the show: “Blue-gray-green-mauve parks. Distances that give out in strokes of paint. Gowns of yellow, gray, pink, dark blue, ruby red, green, green-blue.” These phrases suggest prettiness, something...


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