Gersaint's SignArtists discuss and complain endlessly about the various difficulties and uncertainties they encounter in trying to market their paintings, often as if such things were recent developments. In fact, the way paintings are bought and sold today has not changed appreciably in the last three or four hundred years. Of course the recent torrent of artists' web sites is a new twist, but otherwise, there's not much new under the sun. Art dealers, agents, and galleries go back at least as far as the 1600s to a time when the Dutch mercantile society catered quite efficiently to all levels of their burgeoning art market.
By the 1700s, the French also had a robust gallery system not unlike that found in large cities today. We are indebted to the Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau, for an intimate peak inside just one such elite establishment of the period. Strangely enough, this window into the inner workings of the French art market is in the form of a signboard. For those unfamiliar with such things, we are not talking about a wooden marquee emblazoned with the name of the art gallery. The signboard is a canvas painting usually hung outside beneath the sign bearing the name of the gallery. The Signboard of Gersaint was painted by Watteau in 1721, according to Gersaint (the gallery owner), in just over a week, working only in the mornings, as the artist struggled vainly with tuberculosis. It is a lively composition depicting a bustling enterprise populated by no less than twelve figures and a poodle (presumably French).
Edme-Francois Gersaint was one of the most successful art dealers in France. He was known for having imported from England the idea of selling paintings through the use of a catalogue listing each work by artist, subject matter, size, title, medium, and price. Although the signboard does not depict his actual gallery, it certainly captures quite elegantly the high-class clientele and thriving trade that made his art emporium an integral part of the French art market of the time. The signboard itself was an instant success. It was sold, in fact, just a couple weeks after it was posted, although apparently to two different buyers, who split it in two and had each half framed separately. Today it is back together again though a few inches of canvas is missing down the middle where it was restretched. Tragically, Watteau died only a few days after the signboard was finished. He was only 30 years old.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 June 1998