Why is this painter laughing?

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ARE the four people in this small painting by Antoine Watteau actors in a comedy, dream-figures of a poetical imagination, or real 18th-century ladies and gentlemen in fancy dress participating in a f^ete galante? Donald Posner, in his recent book on Watteau, points out that the ``f^ete galante was a real activity in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a social entertainment, mostly out-of-doors, at the centre of which was amorous conversation and behaviour pursued with grace and wit according to the polite formulas of aristocratic manners.''

Watteau's paintings were even dubbed f^etes galantes by contemporaries, so it is clear that these courtly events were the direct source of his images. Yet his paintings are far from being a merely prosaic record of an upper-class pastime: Indeed they are not a record, as such, at all. They are the transmutation of civilized and elegant human fashions into a higher kind of art.

Comparison of Watteau with Mozart has seemed appropriate to a number of writers, particularly perhaps with the composer's capacity to forge the sublimest music for the most ridiculous operatic librettos. Similarly, Watteau's subject matter is largely trivial, or at any rate festively lighthearted (and his ``melancholy'' has surely been greatly exaggerated, if not entirely invented); he deals, by means of an unemphatic modesty of touch, with the most transient and momentary of human emotions. But that ex traordinary touch is what stays in the mind, both in his drawings and paintings: It is both weightlessly sensitive and decisive. It is, in fact, difficult to find a painter who has made art out of courtly airs and graces with such freedom from pretension and self-importance, yet with such a firm grip on the reality of the people caught up in the fantasy. And honest, affectionate observation of his models consistently saves him from falling into trite prettiness or mere sauciness.

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``Delicacy'' is the word that springs most readily to mind when writing about Watteau -- delicacy of sentiment, of tentative relationships merely hinted at, of symbolic gestures of hand and eye, of music serenadingly strummed, of dances gracefully begun. He subtly catches his protagonists concealing their feelings or trying to make their feelings known, and he does so with a nicety of style that reflects their discretion and restraint.

But he is far from being a preacher or purveyor of manners. His art is no book on etiquette: He is not nearly solemn enough for that. The characters he depicts are immensely solemn, displaying a marvelously conscious dignity. But they are actors in a comedy. To realize that Watteau may well have been laughing at their performance is to see his work in a fresh light. Actors were overtly his subject on numerous occasions (he was early involved with the theater), and he must have c ome to see all human beings as actors to some extent. The f^ete galante encouraged all of its participants to make life temporarily into a theatrical performance. To Watteau, I would argue, it was pure comedy.

Even in such comparatively untheatrical pictures as this one from Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran (recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh), the ``natural'' setting of trees and lake and sky can easily be visualized as a stage backdrop, and the costumed characters as comedians performing beyond the proscenium arch.

Several versions of this subject exist, each with slight but telling variations. Watteau does not narrate obvious stories, but he does provide the viewer with teasing opportunities to guess the meaning of the precise moment depicted. More than one reading usually appears to be feasible. Such ambiguity can also, I believe, be put down to his gentle sense of humor.

Much theatrical comedy about potential love between men and women turns on the misunderstood signal, the misfiring intrigue, the foiled attempt, the deflated dignity, or the pretended modesty as sources of laughter and sudden absurdity. So it is hard to believe that Watteau's pictures of exactly the same little foibles and happenings, painted with such scintillating delight, are intended to be seen either as sentimental episodes of transient sadness, or as fables of erotic fantasy -- both of which inter pretations have been laid at his door. Comedy-of-manners seems much closer to the fact.

Though Flemish by birth, and a great admirer of the ebullient and fruitful art of Rubens, Watteau seems to have identified his art with his adopted France: His ``delicacy'' seems utterly French. Certainly the robust peasant-clowning found in some Flemish and Dutch genre paintings of the previous century are largely absent from his idyllic dream world. Yet there does hover around all this apparent elegance-beneath-the-trees more than a hint of childish (or adolescent) innocence that might suddenly, and w ith comic awkwardness and mismanagement, shatter the illusion and reduce everything to a shambles of mischief and giggles. In certain kinds of art, the relief of laughter never seems to be far around the corner . . . but it also never quite seems to arrive . .

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