RECONSIDERING WATTEAU’S ENSEIGNE DE GERSAINT

© Martin Eidelberg

Created September 2020; revised October 2020

 

Fig 5
    1. Watteau, L’Enseigne de Gersaint, 1720, oil on canvas, 166 x 306 cm. Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Berlin.

 

 

Three hundred years ago, in late 1720, Watteau painted one of his chefs d’oeuvre, the great signboard that he made for his friend, the art dealer Edme Gersaint (figs. 1, 2).1 It is a singular work, even more so because the circumstances of its creation were recorded by Gersaint himself:

On his [Watteau’s] return to Paris, which was in 1721, during the first years of my establishment, he came to me to ask if I would agree to receive him, and allow him to stretch his fingers, those were his words, if I were willing, as I was saying, to allow him to paint a plafond which I was to exhibit outdoors. I had some reluctance to grant his wish, much preferring to occupy him with something more substantial but seeing that would please him, I agreed.2

 

Fig 2 Fig 3

2. Anonymous French engraver, View of the Pont Notre Dame Decorated to Celebrate the King’s Recovery in 1687 (detail), engraving.

3. The original lunette shape of L’Enseigne de Gersaint with the later additions indicated in halftone.


The picture hung outside Gersaint’s shop at 35 Pont Notre-Dame, over the entrance doorway. Its enormous scale and original shape corresponded to the demands of the architectural setting—a lunette space under a depressed arch (fig. 2). All the shops on the bridge had uniform facades, but once Watteau’s signboard was in place, Gersaint’s store would have stood out. The painting met with great approval and admiration. As Gersaint wrote, “One knows the success this work had . . . it attracted the looks of passersby; and even the most skilled painters came several times to admire it.”3

The signboard’s success was so great that Gersaint felt compelled to take it down and install it in his gallery as a work of art. At that time the picture was radically modified. The outer ends of the lunette were cut away, and additional canvas was inserted at the top to transform the arched shape into a rectangle (fig. 3).  These additional portions were painted with framed pictures to match those depicted on the gallery walls below. It is generally thought that these modifications were executed by Watteau’s assistant, Jean-Baptiste Pater.

Fig 5

4. Jean-Baptiste Pater after Watteau, L’Enseigne de Gersaint, oil on canvas, 50 x 82 cm. Geneva private collection.

 

Pater was also called upon to paint a copy of the signboard, much reduced in scale (fig. 4). It measures only one-third the size of the original.

Fig 5
    5. Pierre Aveline after Watteau/Pater, L’Enseigne de Gersaint, engraving, 1732.

 

 

When it came time to engrave the painting for Jean de Jullienne’s Oeuvre gravé, Pierre Aveline turned to Pater’s version and copied it in reverse (fig. 5). Some have argued that Pater’s copy was specifically made for Aveline’s use, but it is also possible that it had been commissioned by an admiring amateur who knew he would not be able to possess the original.4

Watteau’s signboard, so strikingly beautiful, is a seemingly effortless portrayal of life among wealthy Parisian members of society. The clients in the picture consider works of art to adorn their homes and assert their status. The woman seated at the counter contemplates luxury goods, lacquered objets de toilette, and at the left a mirror and elaborate table clock emphasize the richness of Gersaint’s commerce. Unlike Watteau’s fêtes galantes, which often appear idyllic and removed from actual life, L’Enseigne conveys a sense of the urban reality enjoyed by the leisured class. As fresh and spontaneous as Watteau’s painting may seem, several Watteau drawings of posed models remind us that the artist composed the work with the same careful artifice that he employed for his fêtes galantes. Moreover, and this is the main thrust of this enquiry, L’Enseigne is bound to pictorial conventions that Watteau was undoubtedly acquainted with.

Fig 2 Fig 3
    6. William van Haecht, The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628, oil on canvas, 99 x 129.5 cm. Antwerp, Rubenshuis.

 

    7. Jerome Jannsens, A View of the Dresden Gallery, 1644, oil on canvas, 121.8 x 170 cm. Montargis, Musée de peinture.

 

 

When Watteau began work on his signboard for Gersaint, he would have been well aware of the tradition of depicting art galleries and private art collections; it was a well-established theme in European painting, especially in Flemish and Dutch art. One naturally thinks of early seventeenth-century scenes by Teniers and other masters, where the riches of these collections are portrayed with precision. These pictorial inventories still function that way for modern viewers hoping to reconstruct collections that have long since been dispersed.

Fig 5

8. Anonymous Dutch artist, At a Painting Dealer’s Shop, oil on panel, 40.5 x 62 cm. Whereabouts unknown.

 

Moreover, such scenes were not confined to the early seventeenth century.5 They were still a part of European pictorial language in Watteau’s time, as can be seen in a painting  which, as evidenced by the clothes depicted, dates from c. 1690-1715, in other words, shortly prior to L’Enseigne (fig. 8).6 Watteau was cognizant of this tradition, for while he gave primacy to the figural elements and sunk the background pictures into shadow, still, a surprising number of Gersaint’s paintings prove to be identifiable.

Most important, when Watteau offered to paint a signboard for Gersaint, he already had the experience of having painted other signboards. It was among his professional credentials, and this was undoubtedly one of the reasons why he made his offer. In creating signboards for other establishments, he had gained valuable experience that he could call upon. Of particular relevance are two red chalk drawings in the Louvre which once were pasted on the same mount, and record his early ventures in this genre. Although both portray shop interior, they are quite different from each other. They have been discussed in the past in relation to Gersaint’s signboard, but the implications of these two sketches have not been sufficiently considered.

Fig 5
    9. Watteau, A Barber’s Shop, red chalk, 12.2 x 23.4 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des arts graphiques.

 

 

The first design is a scene of a barber shop (fig. 9).7 At the center a man is being shaved, while at the right a man is being shown a periwig. At the left a servant brushes out a periwig while a gentleman ponders his appearance in a mirror on the back wall. How is this drawing to be understood? It is not simply a genre scene studied  from life. In atypical fashion, Watteau has constructed this scene as a rigidly symmetrical composition. The man being shaved is placed directly at the center, and the subsidiary activities are set at the two sides, the one balancing the other. Equally important, the symmetry is enhanced by pedestals and drapery which firmly terminate both sides. In fact, the symmetry of these elements would have been even more apparent had the drawing not been cut slightly at the right side, thus leaving only a portion of what probably was a slightly larger expanse of pedestal and drapery. The rigidly formal nature of Watteau’s  composition calls attention to itself. Recalling his arabesque designs, and unusual paintings such as  L’Alliance de la musique et de la comédie, which functioned like a sign, this compositional study should be understood as a preliminary design for the sign of a barber shop; this idea has been reiterated by almost all Watteau scholars.8 Looking back from the perspective of L’Enseigne, certain elements in the drawings adumbrate features of the Berlin painting. The bottom edge of the drawing is not just a framing element—that would have been rendered as horizontal lines; rather, its diagonal  strokes indicate a curb that must be surmounted to make the passage from the street into the shop, and this is just what occurs in L’Enseigne.9

Fig 5
    10. Antoine Dieu, A Sculptor’s Studio, ink and wash, c. 1690-1710. Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs.

 

 

When Watteau created his design for a barber shop, he did not start from scratch. Rather, he worked within the prevailing conventions of what a signboard should look like. While he may have been stimulated by specific prototypes, we can only point to examples which by chance have survived. Of particular relevance is a design for a signboard (or trade card?) created by Antoine Dieu at the end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century (fig. 10).10 As in Watteau’s design for a barber shop’s sign, here too there is a central focus: a medallion with God or Zeus, the primal sculptors, creating man from clay. Flanking this medallion at left and right are genre-like scenes of a woman of quality meeting with the artist, and workmen involved in the fabrication of sculpture. As in Watteau’s drawing for a barber’s sign, drapery is furled around the central medallion and flares out both at the top and bottom to further the symmetry. The parallels between the structure of this design and Watteau’s suggests that Watteau was guided by convention more often than we realize.

Fig 2 Fig 3
    11. Watteau, A Draper’s Shop, red chalk, 12.2 x 33.4 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des arts graphiques.

 

12. Anonymous French artist, Marchande de linge, engraving c. 1685-1700.

 

The second Watteau drawing in the Louvre shows the interior of a draper’s shop (fig.11).11 In important ways Watteau’s drawing recalls the type of imagery seen in popular prints, such as an anonymous print of a woman selling linens (fig. 12). These prints were an important source for the genre subjects taken up by Watteau and his generation. Adhémar began to explore this rich terrain in the years before World War II and the occasional glimpses that have since been brought to light suggest that Watteau would have enjoyed these prints.  If this print offers provocative parallels with the Louvre drawing and ultimately, it is still closer to L’Enseigne de Geraint.

At the right of the Louvre drawing, a gentleman steps up from the street into the shop, seemingly engaged in conversation with a shop worker holding a bolt of cloth. Beyond them, a young man leans casually against the counter and speaks with a saleswoman. Still further back, a servant boy waits attentively.  Here too, elements look forward to the Enseigne. Key features in this design are the stone masonry at the right and the way that the man at the side steps from the exterior space of the street into the interior of the store. In L’Enseigne the same effect is achieved: the cobblestone roadway and the masonry wall at the left side clearly demarcate the exterior and interior spaces. The man standing against the walls at the left, and the dog lying in the road at the right further emphasizes these spatial distinctions. The play between the interior and exterior spaces, and the inclusion of a portion of the masonry wall are elements found in other signs of this period, such as one for a hatter’s shop published by Jacques Wilhelm.12

Were there a second and opposite scene at the left to complete the composition, the Louvre drawing would be even more like L’Enseigne. At present, the composition is too heavily weighted to one side and calls out for a corresponding scene at the left. Certainly Watteau’s sketch  originally extended more to the left, as is shown by the rendering of the chalk lines, not stopping before the border but continuing on further. This holds true not only in the lines making the curb but also in the scene all the way at the back (a vista to a garden as seen through a doorway or glazed door as in L’Enseigne). But if the composition did extend further to the left, or if a second sketch were drawn on another sheet, which I believe is a strong possibility, then the resemblance to L’Enseigne would be striking indeed.

Even with this limited evidence we can see that there had been a rich treasury of prior signboard designs to inspire Watteau. It needs to be stressed that there undoubtedly was a still larger repertoire that he could have drawn upon, one which has been diminished by time and, also, a substantial portion of his drawings and paintings have been lost.

Fig 5
    13. Anonymous French engraver after Watteau, Frontispiece to La Galerie du Palais, 1714, engraving.

 

 

One of the young Watteau’s commissions that we have only become aware of is a series of frontispieces for a 1914 publication of the plays of Thomas and Pierre Corneille.13 The frontispiece for one of Thomas’ pieces, La Galerie du Palais, happens to show the interior of a draper’s shop, with the male customers on one side and the female customers on the other side (fig. 13). This compositional scheme, as well as the general lines of the architecture, were already present in the Dutch model that Watteau worked from. While one should not claim that La Galerie du Palais directly influenced the design of L’Enseigne, still, it does show that such images of shop interiors were part of his repertoire before he embarked on Gersaint’s signboard. The separation of the clients into two groups, the receding side walls, the central doorway—all these elements will reappear in L’Enseigne.

Fig 2 Fig 3
    14. Anonymous French artist, Scene in a Draper’s Shop, oil on canvas, each 41 x 50 cm. Whereabouts unknown.

 

 

 

We need also consider works by other artists, especially Parisian ones, that Watteau may have been aware of. Unfortunately, little of early eighteenth-century Parisian genre painting has come down to us, and signboards are particularly susceptible to the ravages of time and use. Although few in number, such work have survived. Not only do they offer important analogues with the Watteau drawings we have been discussing but, moreover, they are particularly relevant to L’Enseigne. A pair of pendant paintings showing a draper’s shop, published by François Boucher in the 1950s and published by me a decade later, have not engaged modern scholars, although they are of prime importance (figs. 14).14 Their recent reappearance offers an opportunity to reconsider the question.15

When Boucher published the two pictures, they were presented as anonymous French works dating from c. 1700. The question of attribution still stands today. In certain ways the figures recall the animated staffage in paintings such as Pierre Denis Martin’s View of the Quai de la Rapée in the Musée Carnavalet, and painted around 1700. Certainly these anonymous paintings are from the same time period. The dramatically high lace fontanges worn by the two women establish that the paintings were executed in the last decade of the seventeenth century or the first decade of the eighteenth, that is to say, they were created before Watteau’s various drawings for signboards. Their settings anticipate the solution Watteau used for his Enseigne, namely a view from the street into a gallery, masonry walls at one side suggesting the exterior wall of the building. At the right attention focuses on a vendeuse behind the counter, showing wares to the clients, while the left-hand canvas focuses on the packing of cases—the latter motif offers a striking parallel to Watteau’s scene of workmen packing away the old portrait of Louis XIV that had served as a sign for Gersaint’s shop which was called “Au grand monarque.” The imagery of  this anonymous signboard is remarkably close to the narrative that Watteau painted just a few years later. The parallels between the two works are so striking that one might be tempted to claim that the one was the basis for the other. But that probably was not the case. Rather, there was a continuum for genre scenes and signs, one that deserves future investigation.

In considering L’Enseigne, there are still other aspects of the painting that demand  attention. Of particular interest is the way in which the shape of the original signboard was transformed after it was demounted and taken into Gersaint’s shop. It is generally agreed that at that point the picture’s lunette shape was changed to a rectangular one. As noted above, this was accomplished by cutting small portion of the canvas away at the lower outer corners and adding additional strips of canvas in the upper corners.

Our greater concern is the division of the composition into two parts. The painting would have boasted a considerable size if it had been painted on one continuous canvas—which is what Vogtherr and the Berlin conservators maintain. The canvas would have been difficult to handle in the small quarters of Gersaint’s living quarters. The width of the building was only 3.56 meters in width, and 3.4 meters in depth. If the sign were made from one enormous canvas, matching the lunette-shaped space over the doorway, it too would have had the same width of at least 3.5 meters.  Maneuvering a canvas of such unwieldly proportions in the restricted space of Gersaint’s interior would have been difficult. Two canvases of equal width, measuring only 1.50 meters or a bit more, would have been far more commodious for the ailing Watteau to have handled. A two-part signboard would not only have been more convenient but, in fact, was customary. The anonymous signboard for a draper's shop (fig. 15) has this two-part formula. 

The design of L’Enseigne is itself quite telling. It reveals that the picture was designed as two separate sections. Both the left- and right-hand sections are each composed of a semi-circles of figures, each complete and self-absorbed. In the right half, the figures at the counter focus their attention on a mirror, while a couple at the back examine a large oval painting. All the figures in this right-hand section disregard the people in the left-hand portion. Likewise, the people in the left-hand section are grouped around the old sign being packed away, and not one is aware of what is transpiring as the right. As slight as his illustration for La Galerie du palais is, Watteau took care to show a man at the left looking across to the figures at the right; this provides psychological interest and binds the two sides of the composition together. In the Enseigne the figures strike poses that emphasize the closed, semicircular nature of the groupings. For example, in the left-hand portion, the woman climbing the curb and the man helping her both arch their bodies in exaggerated curves, causing us to focus toward the left. The figures in the right half are all inclined to the right, just as those in the left half turn in the opposite direction. It is almost as though each group had an aversion to the other. These poses emphasize the division of the signboard into two, independent units, and demonstrate that the two parts were from inception intended to be separate. The central axis, the space between the two halves, intercepts no person or object of consequence. From the start, this central section was intended to be a neutral space, and to provide room for whatever framing elements were used on the signboard.

That L’Enseigne was intended to be in two parts is not a new idea. It was advanced more than a half century ago by Hélène Adhémar it but did not gain traction.16 Moreover, Vogtherr has recently and specifically challenged her thesis. He claims that, “The exact analysis of the fabric edges of the two parts and the absence of tension garlands” disprove that thesis.17 Yet a visual analysis of the painting demands a conclusion that it was conceived in two parts.

Fig 5

15. Anonymous French artist after Watteau, Partial Copy after L’Enseigne de Gersaint, oil on canvas, 98 x 130 cm. Whereabouts unknown.


Vogtherr and his team are of the belief that the painting was not cut until 1746 when it was in the hands of the Amsterdam art dealer Pieter Boetgens. Yet this supposition is challenged by high quality copies of the signboard, evidently executed in France. A copy of the left-hand portion of L’Enseigne, already recorded in a 1769 Paris sale and last seen in the 1925 sale of the Michel-Levy collection, offers significant evidence that the painting was in two parts when it still was in Paris (fig. 15).  The Michel-Levy painting is of sufficiently high quality that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was thought to be the original; some maintain, and not without good reason, that it was executed by Pater.18 It was evidently copied directly from Watteau’s picture, and that it copies just one side is striking. It is a telling witness to the bipartite nature of L’Enseigne. Moreover, and key to this argument, there also was a copy of just the right hand side of Watteau’s painting. This picture was recorded in a Paris auction in 1829 but has not been seen since.19 Presumably it was a pendant to the Michel-Levy painting. Together, these two copies help establish that Watteau’s painting was in two parts before it left the French capital and, in fact, was planned that way from the start. Two-part signboards were not unheard of, as is seen also by Martin’s signboard

When Watteau returned from London in 1720, he was quite ill and sought refuge with Gersaint. He painted this signboard to repay his friend for his kindness. In taking him in and providing lodging. Also, the artist “wanted to stretch his fingers,” as Gersaint phrased it. As impromptu and spontaneous as Watteau’s token of friendship may have seemed, as we have seen, it made sense in terms of Watteau’s prior work. Signboards were an area in which he already had ample experience; the depictions of shop interiors were terra cognita for him. It was a natural choice for the artist. Yet as much as Watteau’s L’Enseigne de Gersaint was rooted in traditions familiar to him, he surpassed the established norms to create a universal masterpiece.

 

NOTES 

1 The literature on L’Enseigne de Gersaint is immense. For recent treatments of the signboard, see Hélène Adhémar, “’L’Enseigne de Gersaint” par Watteau. Aperçus nouveaux,” Bulletin du Laboratoire du Musée du Louvre, 9 (1964), 7-18;  Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Paris, Musée du Louvre; Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg. Watteau 1684-1721, ed. Pierre Rosenberg and Margaret Morgan Grasselli, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: 1984), cat. P 73; Guillaume Glorieux. À l'Enseigne de Gersaint: Edmé-François Gersaint, marchand d'art sur le Pont Notre-Dame (1694-1750) (Mayenne: 2002); Christoph Martin Vogtherr et al. Französische Gemälde I, Watteau, Pater, Lancret, Lajoüe (Berlin: 2011).

2 Edme François Gersaint, “Abrégé de la vie d’Antoine Watteau” (1744), in Pierre Rosenberg, ed. Vies anciennes de Watteau (Paris: 1984), 37: “A son retour à Paris, qui était en 1721 dans les premières années de mon établissement, il vint chez moi me demander si je voulais bien le recevoir, et lui permettre, por se dégourdir les doigts, ce sont ses termes, si je voulais bien, dis-je, lui permettre de peindre un plafond que je devais exposer en dehors. J’eus quelque répugnance à le satisfaire, aimant beaucoup mieux l’occuper à quelque chose de plus solide; mais voyant que cela lui ferrait plaisir, j’y consentis.”

3 Ibid: “L’on sait la réussite qu’eu ce morceau; . . . il attirait les yeux des passants; et même les plus habiles peintres vinrent à plusieurs fois pour l’admirer.”

4 This version of Watteau’s composition was included in Paris, Musée de la monnaie. Pèlerinage à Watteau, exh. cat. (Paris: 1977), cat. 209.

5 Nor did this tradition die with Gersaint’s signboard. One need only think of the splendid mid-eighteenth-century  views of Roman art galleries by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

6 London, Sotheby’s, October 12, 1983, lot 5, attributed to Dutch school, c. 1720.  Previously sold, London, Sotheby’s, May 30, 1956, attributed to William Hogarth.

7  Regarding this drawing, see Karl T. Parker and Jacques Mathey, Antoine Watteau, catalogue complet de son oeuvre dessiné, 2 vols. (Paris, 1961), 1: cat. 139; Martin Eidelberg, Watteau’s Drawings: Their Use and Significance, Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1965 (New York: 1977), 24, 38, 231, 236-45, 250, 252. Donald Posner, Antoine Watteau (Ithaca: 1984), 42, 273; Margaret Morgan Grasselli, The Drawings of Antoine Watteau: Stylistic Development and Problems of Chronology (Ann Arbor, MI: 1987), 398-99 Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat, Antoine Watteau, Catalogue raisonné des dessins, 3 vols. (Milan, 1996), 1: cat. 24.

8  One notable exception is Marianne Roland Michel, Watteau, un artiste au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: 1984), 116. While not totally rejecting the idea that the Louvre drawing was intended for a barber’s shop sign, she preferred instead to see it as a representation of a theatrical representation. But none of Watteau’s theatrical subjects, not even L’Amour au théâtre français, are so rigidly structured. Moreover, by no stretch of the imagination can the draperies at the sides be understood as theater curtains.

9 Rosenberg and Prat have noted that the man looking at his reflection in the mirror on the back wall anticipates the motif of the woman and man examining a painting at the back of the room in the Berlin signboard. At best, this is a coincidental parallel.

10 See Marianne Paunet, Antoine Dieu (1662?-1727) (Paris: 2018), cat. 53. The seated lady at the left side of the drawing wears a fontange, a confection of lace adorning the head, a fashion that was in favor for this restricted period of time.

11 Parker and Mathey, Watteau, catalogue complet (1957) 1: cat. 140; Eidelberg, Watteau’s Drawings (1977), 231, 237, 245-52; Posner, Watteau (1984), 273, 276; Roland Michel, Watteau (1984), 116-17; Washington, Paris, Berlin, Watteau 1684-1721 cat. 1; Grasselli, The Drawings of  Watteau (1987), 30-32, 402-3; Rosenberg and Prat, Watteau, Catalogue raisonné (1997),1: cat. 87.

12 See Jacques Wilhelm, “Peinture et publicité,” L’Oeil, 37 (January 1958), 52, 54.

13  For this commission, see Martin Eidelberg, “Watteau’s Drawings for the Plays of Thomas and Pierre Corneille,” Master Drawings, 58 (Fall  2020), 333-42.

14  François Boucher, “Les Sources d’inspiration de l’enseigne de Gersaint,” Bulletin de la Société de l’histoire de l’art français (1957), 123-29. Martin Eidelberg, Watteau’s Drawings: Their Use and Significance, Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1965 (New York: Garland Press, 1977), 250-51.

15  Paris, sale, Hôtel Drouot, January 11, 2019, lot 13.

16 Adhémar, “L’Enseigne de Gersaint “ (1964), 9.

17  Vogtherr,  Französische Gemälde (2011), 198.

18  The primacy of the Michel-Levy painting prevailed, especially among French scholars. The tide of opinion changed after the Germans publicly exhibited Watteau’s painting, which until then had been hidden from most visitors’ sight in the Kaiser’s bedroom

19  Paris, sale, Francillon collection, May 12ff, 1829, lot 157: “(WATTEAU (ANTOINE) . . . Le cabinet d’un marchand de tableaux. Dans une salle ornée de peintures, une jeune femme assise à son comptoir, présente à une dame un petit tableau qui selle-ci regarde avec beaucoup d’attention. Un autre tableau posé à terre occupe particulièrement les regards de plusieurs amateurs, dont l’un s’est agenouillé pour le mieux voir. Nous avons etendu dire que cet ouvrage fut fait pour Gersaint, et servait d’enseigne à son magasin.”
This picture, rather than the one later in the Michel-Levy collection, may have figured in a Paris sale, May 28-31, 1850, cat. 62: “DU MÊME [WATTEAU] . . . La moitié de l’Enseigne. Tableau en plafond, fait pour son ami Gersaint, marchand sur le pont Notre-Dame. Avec sa Gravure.”