"The image οf cadavers being carried by an angry and frustrated crowd, with which I began this essay, is not far from the one that I have just finished analyzing. Both Barbier and Watteau are symbolically recreating felt, palpable social change in the first two decades οf the eighteenth century. They are also, on a second level οf symbolization, trying to understand the metaphorization οf power and influence. The riots over paper money that had suddenly become worthless and the commodification οf art itself, οf placing a monetary value on the most aesthetic οf man's activities, are significant issues, important to describe. The palpable weakening οf a heretofore seemingly invincible central government, objectified in these two scenes by the closed doors οf the Palais-Royal and the disappearing portrait οf Louis XIV, had been underlined by the relative openness that Philippe d'Orleans had brought to his Court; but, his candor was too little and too late. Power had hemorrhaged into the streets. Classes were being redefined, and with them a new ethics, exemplified in the young man's father's awkward attempts at warning his son about mercurial Parisians. Merit will count more than it did, but appearances and the superficial will skill reign, only no longer to be systematically defined by the court. The Regency period (1715-1723) was one οf remarkable narrative energy. Writers such as Challe, Prevost, Marivaux, Montesquieu....
To do a painting, especially when one is dying from tuberculosis, that depicts a moment in a shop's existence, a painting that is meant to attract connoisseurs and speculators, underlines how compelling was the statement that Watteau wanted to make. The transient and its valuation are connected brilliantly in L'Enseigne de Gersaint (a title that offers no profundity f meaning either), because they are connected aesthetically. Thus, Watteau pushes us to surrender to art what it demands: the recognition that only through imaginative effort can an equitable ethics f urbanity be derived. This painting is about the power f art to transcend even the most powerful social and personal impediments to happiness, because they are indeed transient. The sign Watteau painted signals a new social context, bent on possessing, evaluating, and judging according to appearance and by anyone. It is indeed a "photograph" f the Regency.1
L'Enseigne de Gersaint introduces, without the aesthetic and emotional distancing that defines the fetes galantes, the body as the site for the working out f desire, and society as the space in which bodies define and adapt themselves. Fiction and art should draw the connections among desire, the body and society. And this work does just that: it shows potential connections that can narrate the place f desire in an emergent cultural realignment. The painting is so well balanced thematically that one may forget that it is a quite sophisticated commentary on the function f art in society. Its self-consciousness, its theatricality, and its extraordinary use f color all tend us away from its intellectualism. Watteau was asking fundamental questions about the role f the spectator in the production and