Spell

To me, Watteau is the painter who most profoundly understood femininity and went furthest in developing the means to pictorially represent it.

One of the things he figured out is the connection between femininity and veiling. He reveals this intuition through the attention he lavishes on gowns and the dazzling (one might say blinding) shimmeriness of silk, for femininity ultimately is the power to cast a spell, to blind. But at an even more exquisite level, he reveals it through his fascination with women seen from behind. (And please, enough about the male gaze. The male gaze is a feminist fiction. When I involuntarily gaze at a woman, I forget who I am. I am absorbed in her.)

A beautiful woman with her face turned away is like the promise of happiness. Or heartache. Or both. Something to linger on, a ready-made allegory of aesthetic experience. When she turns her face to us, we are obligated to strike a complementary pose, to reveal our desire to her and to ourselves; we can no longer admire disinterestedly.

In the modern period, only Gerhard Richter’s Betty achieves the same tender regard for femininity that Watteau made the staple of his short career.