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 therefore were an important part of their everyday life. However, signboards were part of a commercial culture, not of a high culture. The painters of such signboards were not seen as high-valued artist; nevertheless, favourable public reception surrounding a sign could be evoked as an indication of the imminent inception of a successful career. This shows that the lowest, most despised kind of painting could, and did, serve as an entrée into the world of high art.
Watteau’s last painting, the Enseigne de Gersaint, a gift to his friend, the picture dealer Edame Gersaint, was a signboard. It has to be acknowledged, that Watteau’s signboard however, is of a somewhat different nature. The painting transcended the boundaries of the commercial genre and was recognized as a true work of art.
Watteau’s Enseigne de Gersaint is one of the artist’s most fully realized works. It is ambitious and sophisticated in size and execution, in visual economy, and in content. It is consequently only masquerading under the guise of a signboard, a categori...
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...tworks are essential interpretations or framings of received artistic and social codes rather than renderings of the natural world.
In the Enseigne, art is also shown to serve a function that it has always fulfilled in every society founded on class differences. As a luxury commodity it is an index of social status. It marks the distinction between those who have the leisure and wealth to know about art and posses it, and those who do not. In Gersaint’s signboard, art is presented in a context where its social function is openly and self-consciously declared. In summary, Watteau reveals art to be a product of society, nevertheless he refashions past artistic traditions. Other than other contemporary painters however, his relationship to the past is not presented as a revolt, but rather like the appreciative, attentive commentary of a conversational partner.
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