This picture is a fine example of Watteau’s work on an intimate scale. The title The Scale of Love (La Gamme d’Amour) comes from a print of it made several years after his death. It may be a reference to the musical scale, to the various stages of flirting and seduction, or to the music which facilitates these. The word gamme had other secondary meanings, such as knowledge, ability and custom, perhaps reinforcing the notion here of love or seduction as a skill. The sculpted bust is possibly Pythagoras, who is credited with discovering a musical scale based upon a mathematical ratio.
Watteau may have chosen the man’s fantasy theatrical costume to poetically distance the scene from his own time. The painting shows his skill in composition and as a colourist, with its warm harmonies of pink, red and russet brown.
Scenes of couples making music have a long tradition in European art, especially in Northern and Venetian painting. The subject was also a familiar one in pastoral poetry, and the associations between Watteau’s paintings, music and poetry were recognised by his contemporaries.
The guitarist here is dressed in a theatrical costume. Watteau may have chosen its old-fashioned style to distance the scene from his own time. The woman’s informal clothing is not specific to any period, so it also helps set the scene in an undefined time. She looks at the guitarist’s left hand as he is about to play a note, their collaboration on the musical score perhaps providing an opportunity for flirting. The portrayal of the couple also shows Watteau’s skill in composition and as a colourist – look, for example, at the diagonal that runs upwards from the woman’s foot, across the musical score and along the neck of the guitar and at the warm harmonies of pinks, reds and russet browns.
At the top of the picture, Watteau has included a herm (a squared stone pillar mounted by a carved head that often served as a signpost or boundary marker). The bearded man may be Pythagoras, who is credited with discovering a musical scale based upon a mathematical ratio. A reference to Pythagoras would relate to the title of the painting, which comes from a print of it made several years after Watteau’s death. The Scale of Love (La Gamme d’Amour) may evoke the musical scale, the various stages of flirting and seduction, or the music which facilitates these. The word gamme had other secondary meanings (such as knowledge, ability and custom), perhaps reinforcing the notion here of love or seduction as a skill or technique.
To the right, another couple are seated on the ground, and in the background a third couple leave the scene. A woman with a child leaning into her lap sits between the guitarist and the seated couple. She may be the same woman who is leaving with her male companion, but later in life. The possibility that a child could be the result of their liaison is implied in verses added to an engraving of a similar painting by Watteau in which the children in the picture are referred to, perhaps slightly ironically, as the fruits of tender love.
Although the guitarist is dressed in fantasy costume, his guitar is an accurate representation of a type made by the Voboam dynasty of instrument makers in Paris from 1650 to 1730. The musical score is not a genuine piece of music. A possible title at the top of the left-hand page is illegible, the music itself is a single line melody rather than a score for a singer and guitar accompaniment, and there is no numbering denoting the chords typical of guitar music.
The principal couple in the painting are similar to the male guitarist and his female companion in another work by Watteau, La Récréation galante (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). It is likely that Watteau worked on the two pictures simultaneously, completing them by 1718. Although smaller, the National Gallery’s picture is a fine example of Watteau’s work on a more intimate scale.
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