Watteau, Antoine

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Watteau, Antoine (1684- 1721): French painter.

The art of Watteau breaks with the pompous and ponderous academic style of the Louis XIV period and opens up an era of elegance, gaiety and lyrical melancholy that is the dream world of the rococo. His highest qualities are his soft and brilliant colors and a natural and gracious composition. His genius is to have discovered a world of unknown or little known sentiments before him. The expression of barely perceptible, very intimate emotions, such as the range of feelings starting with the birth of love or affection up to jealousy and deception, appears as the central element of his work.

Watteau was of humble birth. In 1702, he left for Paris to receive an artistic education. He began his apprenticeship copying old masters. In 1704, he studied under Claude Gillot, who would influence him greatly in his interest in theatrical subjects taken from Italian comedy. In 1708, he moved to Claude Audran’s studio, where he perfected his work on burlesque scenes and all things Chinese and Turquish (very much in demand during the period). However, the most significant event of his life was his discovery in the Luxembourg Palace of Rubens’ paintings, commissioned by Marie de Medici. In 1709, he presented unsuccessfully to the Royal Academy of Painting his David and Abigaïl. Disappointed, he returned to Valenciennes for a short while before coming back to Paris, where his paintings won him success. In 1712, he was granted membership in the Royal Academy based on Les Jaloux, inspired by a theatrical scene.

Another great influence on his life was his meeting with Pierre Crozat, a rich patron of the arts. Watteau was allowed the leisure to study Crozat’s art collection, one of the most beautiful in Europe, and his artwork was influenced by his observations of parties and concerts given by the wealthy man. In 1717, after much prodding from the Academy, he presented his Embarkation for Cythera, his most famous painting, and was subsequently awarded the title of “Peintre des fêtes galantes.”

Unhappy in Paris, suffering from tuberculosis, he went to London but stayed there only a few months. Returning to France, he moved in with Gersaint, a gallery owner in Nogent-sur-Marne, and painted for his friend the famous Enseigne de Gersaint. He succumbed to his illness a few months later at the age of thirty-seven.


--Military Scenes

Before Watteau, military scenes were mainly paintings of battles. This genre in the early Eighteenth Century was falling out of fashion. Because of the radical change in the topic of the paintings made by Watteau, the military scenes inspired new interest for the public. He produced a series of works depicting French soldiers’ daily life in which everyday monotony dominated and left no room for feats of arms or exploits of war. Landscape holds an important role in these paintings, which are strongly marked by feelings: It is not the action which is intended to move us but the picture as a whole.

--Popular Types

In this style, his paintings are more realistic and the Flemish influence is still obvious. Le Savoyard and La Fileuse are among his most famous ones, but it is with L’Enseigne de Gersaint that the painter reaches his maturity and his highest art. His attention to details is deeper and the work is a faithful depiction of human feelings and character. His concern for truth has not been stifled by his research of fantasy and elegance. This type of painting would foreshadow Chardin, Jean-Siméon’s masterpieces.

--Theater Paintings

His love for theater probably comes from his first masters, Gillot and Audran. Paintings inspired by theater scenes can be found throughout all his work. At times, his paintings hold an extreme faithfulness to the scene depicted, as in Les Comédiens français. However, most of the time, when he is dealing with subjects from Italian comedy, he does not limit himself to painting strictly what he sees. His approach is different: He does not show the stock characters--Harlequin, Isabella--acting on a stage in front of a backcloth, but in very real landscapes. He strips the farces of their buffoonery and eliminates every sign of vulgarity, thereby transforming them into scenes of superior beauty. He retains only what was necessary and creates a dream world of his own full of tranquil happiness and poetry, as in L’Amour au théâtre italien. Among paintings of theater subjects, Watteau’s genius reaches its apex with Gilles, where he sublimates reality without devitalizing it.

--“Fêtes Galantes”

The “fête galante” is a new genre created and developed by Watteau. It combines skillful elements from the Commedia dell’arte and the classic pastoral. In this type of painting, it seems possible to hear a soft melody mingling with the characters. Every face is filled with life and personality. Watteau was the first artist to depict characters deep in their thoughts or daydreaming with love. He manages to express the subtle differences that separate sincere love from simulation or happiness from deception or disappointment, as in La Proposition embarassante. At the same time, he is intensely interested in elegant and precious costumes. His figures always display light and harmonious gestures. People in his paintings are grouped together and the background is often a poetic landscape that reflects the psychology of the characters. His art allows him to create an imaginary world that conjures up an earthly paradise and an ideal existence where humans are in perfect harmony with nature.

During his lifetime, Watteau had many imitators, the most famous ones are Lancret, Nicolas and Pater.

Further Reading:

Donald Posner, Antoine Watteau, 1984

Mary Vidal, Watteau's painted conversations : art, literature, and talk in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, 1992.

Guy David Toubiana

The Citadel