The French painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was the catalyst of the Regency period of the rococo style. His painterly language is an elegant camouflage of strong emotion by kindly sentiments and gentle manners.
Antoine Watteau was born on Oct. 10, 1684, in Valenciennes, the son of a prosperous roof tiler. Because Antoine was the second son, his parents did not oppose his training with the local religious painter J. A. Gérin. When Watteau was about 18, nevertheless, his father declined to continue paying for his apprenticeship, and the youth moved to Paris, where he made his way copying paintings for dealers.
It was probably through Pierre and Jean Mariette, dealers in engravings, that he met in 1703 Jean's cousin, the painter Claude Gillot, designer of costumes and stage sets inspired by themes from the Italian commedia dell'arte, a troupe of traveling actors noted for satirical improvisation. They had been banished from France since 1697, when they had imprudently staged La Fausse Prude, a parody, it seemed, upon Madame de Maintenon, King Louis XIV's second wife. This pious woman exercised considerable influence over the King and delayed the natural evolution of the arts until his death in 1715, when all of France, including Watteau, who had previously functioned largely as a decorator and painter of small genre scenes, went on a holiday of unconstrained creativity.
Watteau worked with Gillot until 1707/1708, when a professional rivalry developed, and Watteau went to work with Claude Audran III for about two years. Audran was a great decorator, and Watteau is known to have assisted in some of his commissions for the King. Through Audran he mastered his quick, supple line and his feathery brushstroke for foliage, figures, and facial accents. Audran was also the curator of the Medici Gallery of the Luxembourg Palace, which contained the celebrated series of paintings of the life of Marie de Médicis by Peter Paul Rubens, whose art had a profound influence upon Watteau.
After Watteau won second place in the Royal Academy's competition for the Prix de Rome in 1709, he returned to Valenciennes for a brief visit and then brought with him to Paris a young colleague, the artist Jean Baptiste Pater, who followed, almost slavishly, Watteau's style and themes, especially the military subjects Watteau was painting during this period. The landscape and figure sketches Watteau made at this time constituted a repertory of motifs which served him thereafter for his paintings, the arbitrary compositions of which precluded the necessity of his observing nature directly.
In 1712, on the recommendation of Charles de La Fosse and Antoine Coypel, Watteau became an associate member of the academy. His presentation piece was the painting Les Jaloux, known only from an engraving. La Fosse introduced Watteau to the financier and art collector Pierre Crozat, who invited Watteau to stay with him in 1715 at his country place at Montmorency, which housed a superb collection of Flemish and Venetian paintings and drawings, including works by Titian, Domenico Campagnola, and Paolo Veronese. Close study of these masterworks instantly inspired Watteau's most notable theme, the fêtes galantes, which represent the pleasures of country life enjoyed by Paris society during the Regency.
Works like Watteau's Musical Party, probably representing Crozat's friends amusing themselves in the park at Montmorency, are less turbulent than works of his previous period like the Accordée de village and though more polite, reminiscent of the blooming conviviality of Rubens's Garden of Love. Gallantry and splendid refinement of manners and dress perfume these pastoral scenes of Watteau; demure gesture and physiognomical charm alone reveal the emotional intensity experienced by prospective young lovers, who register in infinite variety the first shock of infatuation. Watteau's sensitivity to nuance, in the gamut of amorous emotions, apparent in these group compositions and isolated in works representing single figures, such as L'Indifférent, bespeaks the shy lover in love with love, ever at dalliance but seemingly incapable of gratification.
In 1717 Watteau became a member of the academy. His diploma piece was the Embarkation for Cythera (later he made another version of it). This work was officially qualified as a fête galante and the artist as a painter of fêtes galantes.
Though Watteau is reputed to have been of a nervous and impatient nature, little is really known of him except that he was indifferent to money, devoted to his art, delicate in health, retiring, discreet with women, and always surrounded by a few loyal friends. The frequent changes of residence or studio in which he worked is perhaps attributable not only to restlessness of temperament but also to carelessness of bachelor habits, apparent in his untidy painting techniques, occasioning the deterioration of a number of his most prized works. In 1711 he had lived in Paris with his close friend, the art dealer Pierre Sirois, where, seeking a less social milieu than that found with Crozat, he returned in 1715/1716. Between 1716 and 1719 Watteau resided with Nicolas Vleughels in Paris, when he painted many of his masterpieces.
Watteau's painting Gilles (ca. 1719) seemingly deals with two levels of thought, the worldly and the philosophical. Glamorous actors with sensuous faces and fanciful hats amuse themselves by teasing a donkey ridden by a grinning jackanapes dressed in black who leers provocatively at the observer as if eager for recognition. The pagan god Pan is represented as a herm figure in profile with closed eyes. In front of the actors, raised on an eminence, looms their fellow player Gilles, like an immemorial Pagliacci, alone and ludicrous. Dressed in white satin, with his head set off against the blue sky by a hat rounded like a nimbus, Gilles mutely awaits a cue that is not given here. The world of his cohorts is unaware of his overwhelming awareness. Only the donkey seems to know what Gilles, in fact, Watteau, knows, and their eyes solemnly meet the observer's.
In 1719 Watteau went to London, possibly to consult the noted physician Richard Mead, who became his patron and friend. The rigors of the London winter are said to have undermined Watteau's health. During his brief sojourn there he met artists of the French colony, who passed on his style; thus Watteau profoundly influenced the course of 18th-century painting in England.
On Watteau's return to Paris in 1720 he lodged with E. F. Gersaint, Sirois's son-in-law, for whom he painted the famous signboard known as the Enseigne de Gersaint which hung outside the picture dealer's shop. This work is remarkable for the painterly spontaneity with which it was executed, presumably within a very few days, its diminutive figure scale, and the graceful informality of genre realism typifying the modern style which Watteau helped to create. Because of increasing ill health, he moved to Nogent-sur-Marne, where he died on July 18, 1721. His last work, The Halt during the Chase, is uncoordinated and in particularly poor condition, indicative, no doubt, of the artist's final illness.
Of the approximately 300 paintings executed by Watteau between 1704 and 1721, none is signed or dated, making the establishment of a chronological development purely conjectural. Most of these works were engraved under the direction of Jean de Jullienne between 1721 and 1735.
Further Reading on Antoine Watteau
Previous to Karl T. Parker's pioneering book, The Drawings of Antoine Watteau (1932), many Watteau drawings were scattered and known only from the Jean de Jullienne engravings. Though their art-historical scholarship is far from negligible, the essay on Watteau by Edmond and Jules Goncourt in their French XVIII Century Painters: Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, Latour Greuze, Fragonard, edited by Robin Ironside (trans. 1948), is important humanistic literature; as a verbal reincarnation of the 18th-century spirit, it should it should not be missed. More recent studies of Watteau include Anita Brookner, Watteau (1967); Pierre Schneider, The World of Watteau, 1684-1721 (1967); and René Huyghe, Watteau (1968; trans. 1970). See also François Fosca, The Eighteenth Century: Watteau to Tiepolo (1952).
Additional Biography Sources
Posner, Donald, Antoine Watteau, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Wine, Humphrey, Watteau, London: Scala Books; New York, NY: Distributed in the USA and Canada by Rizzoli International Publications, 1992.