Antoine's Alphabet

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

By choosing the form of an alphabet book or dictionary for Antoine’s Alphabet, Jed Perl has produced a text that can be read as a single entity or consulted as a reference book with attention given only to specific topics. From the prologue to the last page of the book, Perl extols Antoine Watteau’s greatness as an artist and adeptly explains why Watteau is his favorite painter. He also uses Watteau’s paintings as a springboard into an exploration of the influence of art and creativity in the shaping of human history and also as a reflection of the sensory and sentimental realities experienced in living.

The book is subtitled Watteau and His World. Through the alphabetical entries, Perl takes the reader into Watteau’s world, which has no boundaries, neither geographical nor temporal. Watteau’s is the world of the human spirit and of the human life experience, filled with uncertainties, hesitations, and ambiguities and yet totally and vitally alive.

Preceded by an illustration of Watteau’s painting of Mezzetin, the prologue begins with a literary portrait of the character portrayed in the painting. Perl describes his attitude of abandonment, his fanciful attire, his energetic pose, and his elusive thoughts. Perl’s discussion is reminiscent of the descriptions of paintings written by the eighteenth century philosopher Denis Diderot in Les Salons (1759-1781). Both writers create stories suggested to them by the paintings. With this introduction, Perl unabashedly announces that Watteau, a French artist of the early eighteenth century, is his favorite painter. The rest of the prologue previews what is to be found in the text. Thirty-six entries are devoted to Watteau and his paintings or are closely linked to Watteau; five treat art in general; and twenty-one discuss topics more or less related to Watteau.

In the various entries about Watteau, Perl discusses specific paintings by the artist; themes and characters painted by Watteau; Watteau’s methods of working; and his friendships with and his influences on later artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers. The two Watteau paintings that receive the most elaborate treatment are Gersaint’s Shopsign and The Pilgrimage to Cythera. Perl sees Watteau’s paintings as having an immense power of attraction, of symbolism, and of ambiguity. For him, the men and women depicted are never static or easily categorized. They are individuals subject to ever-changing emotions and indecision. With his detailed verbal descriptions, Perl draws the reader into the world of the painting just as Watteau draws the observer into the painting with his visual imagery.

In his entry Gersaint’s Shopsign, Perl describes the luxury items sold by the store and the elegant aristocratic shoppers, and he discusses the way in which Watteau shifts the symbolism of desire back and forth from desire for beautiful objects to sexual desire. Perl succeeds in enticing the reader to enter the shop and participate in the action of the painting. Then he incorporates William Cole’s description of Madame Dulac’s shop in Paris in 1760 and a scene from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) into his discussion in order to illustrate further the many suggestions that Watteau makes in this painting.

In his entry on The Pilgrimage to Cythera, Perl discusses how Watteau uses ambiguity. Upon viewing the painting, the spectator is overcome with uncertainty as to exactly what is happening. Are the men and women leaving for Cythera or are they returning? Are they falling in love or have they been in love? Illuminating this point, in the entry on “Soldiers,” Perl emphasizes Watteau’s predilection for painting scenes in which the characters are about to do something of importance or have just finished doing something.

Watteau peopled his paintings with men and women who are often in ambiguous relationships but who always draw the...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Art & Antiques 31, no. 10 (October, 2008): 138.

Booklist 105, no. 1 (September 1, 2008): 23.

The New Yorker 84, no. 33 (October 20, 2008): 93.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 26 (June 30, 2008): 169.