Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Jean-Antoine Watteau was the finest painter of the French Rococo style, an artist beside whom the painterly talents of his contemporaries - like the Venetian Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-70), and the Frenchmen Francois Boucher (1707-70) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) - are measured. He was born at Valenciennes - the town had only recently been ceded to France, and during his lifetime he was considered a Flemish painter. Best remembered for his fetes-galantes, a popular form of Romanticism of the early 18th century, his major works of oil painting include: Savoyarde with Ground Hog (1707, Hermitage, St Petersburg), The Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt (1715, Hermitage, St Petersburg), Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717, Louvre), The Italian Comedy (1718, SMPK, Berlin), Gilles (Pierrot) (1719, Louvre) and The Hunting Party (1720, Wallace Collection, London).
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He first learned the basics of drawing and painting from the artist Jacques-Albert Gerin, in Valenciennes. In about 1702, Watteau went to Paris as an assistant to either Gerin or another local artist, a painter of scenery for the Paris Opera. This was probably Watteau's first contact with the theatre. He later became infatuated with it.
Left in Paris by his master, Watteau was forced to produce copies of popular Old Masters on a semi-production-line basis. It may have been at this time that he began to paint in his own right, scenes he would have known during his childhood at Valenciennes, executed in the style of the Dutch Realists Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38) and David Teniers (1610-90). Throughout his life his paintings were always based on drawings, and even during these early years in Paris when he was living in poverty, he made many delicate drawings after nature.
Claude Gillot and Claude Audran
Quite soon after his arrival in Paris he
had the good fortune to come into contact with Claude Gillot (1673-1722),
the theatrical painter, daughtsman and etcher, and by 1703 he may have
been his pupil. Under Gillot he renewed his association with the theatre
and in particular with the Commedia dell'Arte. This troupe of Italian
comedians had taken Paris by storm with their fast and irreverent pantomimes;
their performances had been considered so scandalous that the company
had been expelled from the city in 1697. The memory of the Commedia
dell'Arte lived on in the productions of French comedians who also
based their plays round the traditional characters of Harlequin, Pierrot,
and Pantalone. Scenes from the Commedia formed most of the subject
matter of Gillot's paintings, handled in a rather matter-of-fact way.
Not surprisingly, the paintings that Watteau made during his apprenticeship
with Gillot are Commedia scenes that seem, like his master's, to have
been painted from actual performances. It was Claude Gillot who ended
Watteau's apprenticeship about 1707 or 1708, possibly because of professional
jealousy. He transferred his apprenticeship to Claude Audran III (1658-1734),
one of the leading decorative painters of the day and whose studio employed
a number of artists to carry out his designs. Under Audran, Watteau absorbed
a complete Rococo vocabulary of trellisses, birds and monkeys, and chinoiserie
In 1709, Watteau submitted a painting for the coveted Prix de Rome competition, whose prize-winners were awarded a 5-year scholarship to study fine art in Rome. He came second, and his fortunes began to improve. Sirois, a dealer with whom he later stayed, commissioned him to paint a contemporary battle scene. Watteau returned to Valenciennes, close to the battle lines of the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns, to make his work as natural as possible. Few of his paintings of military scenes survive, but engravings show that what interested Watteau was not the fight or the glamour of battle but the underlying reality: the camps, the soldiers waiting for orders, and the general inactivity of war. His military paintings are like reports from a modern war correspondent, for he had an acute eye which could select the important in everyday life.
This perceptiveness was Watteau's greatest
gift, and he used it fully in the type of fine
art painting with which his name is most closely linked, the fete
galante (fetes champetres). In this type of picture, beautifully
dressed young people idle away their leisure time in a dreamy, romantic
pastoral setting. This type of scene of lovers in a parkland setting stemmed
originally from Giorgione (1477-1510) and
the medieval "Garden of Love", but Watteau was the first rococo
painter to breathe real life into the idiom, an idiom later revisited
by Francois Boucher and also by Jean-Honore Fragonard in his famous work
of love and seduction The
Swing (Fragonard) (1767).
It was Rubens who once again was the inspiration for Watteau: not so much the Rubens of the Marie de Medici cycle, but the Rubens who painted "The Garden of Love" (c.1634, Prado Museum, Madrid). Seriousness of subject is not generally thought to be an attribute of Rococo painting, and Watteau's exquisitely dressed and perfectly mannered courtiers may seem at first sight as unlikely as his Harlequins and Pierrots to be the vehicles of human passions. But Watteau was above all an artist who understood the theatre, with its contrasting layers of artifice and reality.
Restlessness, ill health, and financial motives may have encouraged
Watteau's visit to London in 1719. It was probably during his year in
England that he created "La Toilette" (1719, Wallace Collection,
London). Realistic and freely painted, it shows a Venetian sensuousness
quite new to French Painting. At Watteau's death, only a year after
his return to Paris from London, his priest persuaded him to destroy
a number of "offensive" paintings that were probably similar
to La Toilette.
Works by Jean-Antoine Watteau can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.
For profiles of the great artistic
movements/periods, see: History of Art.