In eighteenth century Paris the images on signboards served the purpose of stimulating, amusing and informing through an iconography that was complex enough to engage the great masters of the time.
At the time, signboards were an early form of advertising, meant to attract attention, establish a mental-visual association between sign and place, and seduce customers. Signboards indicated specific commercial establishments and provided information about the nature of the goods and services to be found within. The iconography for certain guilds and shops were apparent to the society and would be immediately understood. People used these signboards to find their way around the city and ...view middle of the document...
The fabulous freedom, deftness and assurance of his brush seem like a wonder to the viewer’s eye when one steps closer until illusion is no longer possible. Schneider states that in the Enseigne de Gersaint, realism self-consciously seeks to render reality, he emphasises that the masterpiece is reality.
Watteau’s painting brings together conflicting cultural codes and practices, and therefore breaks with the traditional boundaries. The viewer is confronted with the conflict between the real world and the superficially created one. In all the genres that Watteau painted, he stretched, juxtaposed, and jostled the conventions to reveal, whether intentionally or not, the arbitrary and ideological nature of representation.
Executed in 1720, shortly before his death less than a year later, the Enseigne de Gersaint can be considered as Watteau’s artistic testament. Scholars even went so far as to praise the signboard as a summation of Watteau’s artistic career, as a visual explication of his artistic theory, and an application of his talent to the elevation of commerce by masterfully depicting a pedestrian subject – a celebration of the transforming power of art. Therefore it was even more important that the signboard conveyed the proper message, and that this message was commonly understood by the society. In the Enseigne de Gersaint, Watteau, already weak and sick, takes this play with the conventions of signification to a logical, and almost dramatic conclusion. This elaborately painted signboard should be thought of as Watteau’s most fully achieved image of conversation, which became a primary metaphor for the artist’s own artistic self-definition.
There is an effect of unending dialogue of forms and of a continuous exchange between aesthetic and social codes present, which is determined by the aesthetic and anti-commercial standards of the French elite. After the alterations made due to the change of size and shape, the Enseigne now is a new form of sociability, involving the collecting and savouring of artworks and luxury objects.
The question that scholars still are unsure about is whether Watteau intended a larger meaning and what the precise nature of the subject is. According to Plax, two schools of thought have emerged. The first one sees the Enseigne de Gersaint as a genre painting; the second views it as an allegory, with a coherent, programmatic meaning. Comte de Caylus saw the piece of art as an exception to the typical Watteau painting since it expressed something with some kind of emotion. This statement in fact is coherent to Gersaint’s account of the somewhat emotional story of the creation of the sign. According to Gersaint, “It was done from life; the attitudes were so varied and graceful, the composition so natural and the groups so thoughtfully done that it attracted the attention of passers-by”. The signboard accordingly is a personal allegory, a final summing up of Watteau’s position within the world of...