Antoine Watteau, in full Jean-Antoine Watteau, (born Oct. 10, 1684, Valenciennes, France—died July 18, 1721, Nogent-sur-Marne), French painter who typified the lyrically charming and graceful style of the Rococo. Much of his work reflects the influence of the commedia dell’arte and the opéra ballet (e.g., “The French Comedy,” 1716).
Early life and training.
Antoine Watteau was the son of a roof tiler. According to early biographers his childhood was an unhappy one. As a boy he was sensitive and susceptible to quick changes of mood, a voracious reader of novels, and an avidmusic lover. He showed a penchant for making life studies of mountebanks performing on the public square, and his parents placed him in the workshop of a local painter. At about the age of 18, Watteau decided to go to Paris, where he arrived penniless and apprenticed himself to an old painter, Métayer. Work was scarce, however, so young Watteau moved on to a position in a workshop specializing in votive paintings. Meanwhile, he made countless sketches from life, which were to be a source of thematic inspiration to him for the rest of his life. It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of the art dealers Jean and Pierre-Jean Mariette, in whose shop he admired a precious collection of drawings and engravings, including some by the etcher Jacques Callot. There, in about 1703, he also met his new teacher, Claude Gillot.
Gillot was a decorator of theatrical scenery, with a great talent for painting grotesques, fauns, satyrs, and scènes d’opéra. He detested the grandiose official art of his own time, preferring to work in the style of the 16th-century school of Fontainebleau, with its free feminine grace. Gillot also painted subjects from the Italian commedia dell’arte, whose actors had been expelled from France only a few years before. Gillot’s taste for these subjects, as well as some features of his drawing style, are reflected in Watteau’s work. He began to observe the theatre from the wings: the makeup, the machines, the settings—all that serves to create scenic illusion. He discovered a new sense of light in the colourful reflections of artificial illumination on deep shadows, on made-up faces, on the brilliant costumes, and on the painted backdrops. The spectacle being staged was born of the equilibrium established among these elements; natural reality could scarcely have taught the young Watteau more.
In 1708 Watteau entered the studio of Claude Audran III, then curator of the Medici Gallery in the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris. Now his experience of Paris was virtually complete—the world of the theatre, the grand gardens of the Luxembourg, the study of art collections. Watteau’s Paris is a combination of ceremonies and illusions, a miracle of civilization that reveals itself in its avenues and fountains, with their marvellous play of water amid the gardens. At the Luxembourg he studied the triumphant cycle of paintings that Rubens had dedicated to Marie de Médicis about 30 years earlier. These huge works, vibrant with life and pleasure, exerted a deep influence upon him. Watteau assisted Audran, who was the most famous decorator in Paris, but he also looked to other worlds. In 1709 he was accepted as a student at the Académie Royale of painting and entered the competition for the Prix de Rome, but he failed to win the scholarship to Rome and decided to return to Valenciennes. A friend sold a painting of his so that Watteau could pay for the return journey. He was to paint others at Valenciennes for one of his admirers, a wounded officer in convalescence there. These subjects (“Les Fatigues de la guerre,” “Les Délassements de la guerre”) found favour with the public. In 1710 Watteau returned to Paris as the guest of the art dealer Pierre Sirois, who, together with Sirois’s son-in-law Gersaint, was to be his faithful friend for the rest of his life. Watteau introduced members of the Sirois family into his paintings. He was not a portrait painter, however. His subjects do not seem to have names: they are at times friends who masquerade and pose for the groups of Italian actors.
In 1712 Watteau tried once more to go to Italy. He did not succeed, but he was accepted by the Académie as a painter of fêtes galantes—outdoor entertainments in which the courtiers often dressed in rural costumes—for his presentation of a scene depicting actors in a garden. Between 1710 and 1712 he had painted the first of his three versions of the “L’Embarquement pour l’île de Cythère.” The myth of the island of Cythera, or of love, has distant roots in French and Italian culture, in which the journey is depicted as a difficult quest. Watteau’s Cythera, by comparison, is a paradise wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice; it represents an invitation to delights amid the enchantment of nature. It is an island toward which the pilgrims embark but never arrive, preserving it preserves its light only if it remains far on the horizon.
Watteau’s first version of the subject is anecdotal: it illustrates a comedy motif in a vaguely Venetian ambience. The second—which is the most beautiful—has the aspect of a profane ritual in an unreal, immense, and almost frighteningly empty landscape. In the third, in which cherubim flutter around a golden gondola, the subject has become vulgarized. Common to all three versions is a theatrical, almost scenographic, composition, a chromatic transposition of all that is suggested in the theatrical universe. The wonderlands of opera, romance, and epic are all evoked by Watteau’s Cythera, which represents the country of the impossible dream, the revenge of madness on reason, and of freedom on rules and morality. According to one hypothesis, the theme was suggested to Watteau by a prose play, Les Trois Cousines (1700), by Florent Dancourt, in the finale of which a group of country youths, disguised as pilgrims of love, prepare to embark on the voyage to the island of Cythera. Since this story of rustic millers is parodistic in intent and quite different from the refined scene that Watteau set in an unreal Venice, it is more probable that Watteau was inspired by an opéra ballet of Houdar de la Motte, La Vénitienne (1705), in which the invitation to the island of love includes not only the pilgrims of Cythera but also the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte—that is, both of the great themes that Watteau pursued all his life.
Period of his major works.
Despite his growing fame, Watteau remained shy, misanthropic, dissatisfied with himself, “libertine in spirit, but prudent in morals.” There is little information concerning him from 1712 until 1715, when he was introduced to the very rich financier Pierre Crozat, who had just returned from Italy. There, on behalf of the Regent, Crozat had been negotiating for the acquisition of Queen Christina’s art collection. A Watteau enthusiast, Crozat invited the painter to take up quarters in his residence, as was the custom among wealthy art lovers. Crozat had a great collection of Italian and Flemish paintings and drawings, including Correggio, the Venetian masters, and Van Dyck, and as Crozat’s guest, Watteau profitably applied the lessons of the Italian masters. He also painted the gardens and the countrysides surrounding the villa at Montmorency. Watteau left his rich patron out of a desire for freedom, although he remained his friend. Thenceforth he lived in seclusion and solitude. This was the period of the birth of his masterpieces: the “Conversations,” the “Divertissements champêtres,” the “Fêtes galantes.” In 1717 he presented to the Académie, of which he had become a member, the second version of “L’Embarquement pour l’île de Cythère.” Two years later he was in London, where his works were in great demand and where he also wanted to consult a famous physician about his health, which had been failing for some time. In London he limited himself to executing very few paintings, one of which was for his doctor on a subject very dear to him, “Italian Comedians.”
Hardly a year later, in 1720, Watteau was back in France. In only eight days he painted the now-famous signboard for the shop of his art dealer friend Gersaint. Among his last works was “Gilles,” a portrait of a clown in white painted as a signboard for the Théâtre de la Foire. White as innocence (or imbecility) and roseate in complexion, “Gilles” is the image of the actor during intermission—the actor who offers himself every day to the laughter of his fellows, the uncomprehending victim of a ceremony the full meaning of which seems to evade him. He is represented in a grandness that recalls Rembrandt’s “Christ Presented to the People” (“Ecce Homo”). At the other extreme is the signboard that Watteau painted for Gersaint: it portrays an art dealer’s shop in which a morose painting of Louis XIV is being symbolically stored away, as if to mark the end of his great reign. Although there are a number of figures, the protagonist of the picture is painting itself, as if Watteau at the end of his life were consecrating his art to eternity. By now Watteau was worn down by tuberculosis, and he died at the age of 37.
Themes and influences.
Watteau’s art exemplifies the profound influence of the theatre as a motif of inspiration on the painting of the 18th century. The strongest influence on his work was exercised not by solemn tragedy but by the most ephemeral theatrical forms. One major influence was the commedia dell’arte, in which words count significantly less than gestures, a theatre linked to the actor, who brings his own routines with him. Another influence was the opéra ballet, with its grand display of fleeting images embodied by the dance, the singing, the costumes, and the decorations. Watteau belonged to a period of reaction against the classicism of the preceding era, in which division of the arts and of the separation of styles had been strictly observed. An attempt was thus made to ennoble the genres previously considered inferior (farce, improvised comedy, the novel), and bold transpositions from one form of art to the other were ventured, as in the fusion of poetry, music, painting, and dance into the new genre of opera. In many cases Watteau’s painting is a chromatic transposition of the world of the opera.
Watteau interpreted his era in forms so delicate and evanescent that they seem to suggest the illnesses of the culture. In the quarrel that raged between Ancients and Moderns, Watteau seems instinctively to have sided with the Moderns. For him antiquity and its great heroes were dead. His adoration of the present and its refined modernity, and fashion bordered on frivolousness. On the other hand, he rejected every form of picturesque realism. His conception of Parnassus, the home of the gods of ancient Greece, resembles the Paris of his time, which he often reduced to the dimensions of a stage. Watteau was immersed in the ephemeral. Women reign in his paintings. Men—cavaliers or clowns—are there to please the women who glide by, enfolded in their splendid silken raiments. The statues in the parks are almost always statues of women. And even nature is feminine: trees with slender trunks, rich with a soft and uncertain foliage.
Watteau’s circle of admirers dissolved shortly after his death, and his reputation began to wane. Watteau, who had interpreted the deepest aspirations of his own time, was found pleasing by few later in the 18th century as the Age of Reason developed. Painting then passed to the observation of reality and, finally, to social protest. It was natural that an artist, such as Watteau, who exalted the free reign of fantasy was set aside. Critics later, during the French Revolution, accused Watteau of “having infected the dwellings of his time with bad taste.”
The 19th century marked a certain resurgence of interest in Watteau, especially in England and among some French poets, namely Victor Hugo, Gérard de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. Gradually, his fortunes revived: Baudelaire presented a profound and precise interpretation of the artist, placing him among the “beacons” of mankind in one of his most famous poems (“Les Phares,” 1855). He too saw Watteau’s art against the background of the comédie-ballet as a whirling and weightless dance among popular stock characters or aristocratic cavaliers under the artificial lights of chandeliers.
In 1856 the Goncourtbrothers published “Philosophie de Watteau,” in which they compared him to Rubens. Marcel Proust, at the end of the century, was among those who best sensed Watteau’s greatness. Eventually the esteem Watteau enjoyed in the circle of art lovers, poets, and novelists extended to the broad public.Giovanni Macchia
PURE PLEASURE! The notion that a work of art should evoke such a response seems to us slightly improper and very old-fashioned. It takes us back to the last whispers of the aesthetic movement, when critics debated the meaning of the term 'pure poetry'. Well, if anything can be called 'pure painting' it is L'Enseigne de Gersaint. Before it I find myself thinking of Pater's essay on Giorgione, and groping for his words 'the sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any others'.
My first impression of the Enseigne is of an interplay of tone and colour so breath takingly beautiful in its own mysterious domain that to attempt an analysis would be foolish and indelicate. But as I sit enraptured by these areas of shimmering light and shadow I fancy that I can understand some of the principles on which it is constructed. To my astonishment I find myself thinking of Piero della Francesca's fresco of the Queen of Sheba. There is the same silvery colour, the same processional dance of warm and cool tones, even some of the same detachment.
The individual colours are nameless, and a colour reproduction which pretends to iternise them misrepresents the whole. The silk dress of the lady on the left, which is the most positive note in the picture, could, I suppose, be described as lavender. But every other large area is not a colour but a mutation of tone. The lavender dress, which is cool, is completed by the warm russet of the man's waistcoat, which then passes into the cool grey of the background.
On the right the process is reversed. The silk dress of the seated lady, an indescribable combination of spring colours, is on the whole warm. The gentleman with his back to us is the coldest grey in the picture, but his silvery wig is relieved by Diana and her Nymphs whose muted pink bodies he is admiring. In and out, back and front, white, cool, warm, cool, black, cool, warm, black: it is a design as strict as a fugue.
But of course Watteau has not allowed this formality to become apparent. He has introduced subtle variations, and he has disguised the symmetry of tone by a contrast in subject, between the two forms of activity in Gersaint's establishment, the fine art of salesmanship, revolving round the elegant picture frame, and the mechanical art of encaissement, based on the rough wooden packing case. Moreover, once our eyes have grown used to the general plan, we become aware of small notes of colour at first imperceptible in the grey. From beneath the standing lady's lavender cloak there appears an emerald green stocking; beside the seated lady's elbow is a lacquerred box. Like exceptional instruments in a large orchestra, they may pass unnoticed until we read the score, yet they have given depth and vibration to the whole.
These reflections on tone and colour, which come first to mind before the Enseigne, would, I think, have occurred to me much later if I had been looking at any of Watteau's other paintings. Before them I should no doubt have found myself thinking about the grace and pathos of his figures, and the touching world of make believe which was his peculiar creation. Even Roger Fry found himself thinking less about the plastic qualities of L'Indifferetit than about the result of his encounter with La Finette. Of course there is a poetic element in the Enseigne, and a delicate interplay of human relations, but these are secondary to the pictorial qualities. In this, as in many other respects, it is unique in Watteau's painting: we must ask what has happened.
L'Enseigne de Gersaint was, in effect, Watteau's last picture. In 1719, already afflicted with consumption, he had taken the strange fancy to visit England, 'that veritable home of the disease'. Perhaps he came to consult the famous Dr Richard Mead; certainly Dr Mead owned two of his pictures, although whether they were painted in England seems to me very doubtful. These months of residence in London are inexplicable, and Watteau's friends felt that they had changed his character. He returned to Paris in the spring of 1720 and the sequel can best be told in Gersaint's own words.
'In 1721, on his return to Paris, in the first years of my business, he came to me and asked if I would allow him to paint an over door to be exhibited outside my premises, in order (these were his words) to take the numbness from his fingers. I felt a certain distaste in granting his request, as I should have liked him to be occupied with something more solid; but seeing that it would give him pleasure, I agreed. The success of this piece is well known. It was all done from nature, and the attitudes were so truthful and easy, the arrangement so natural and the grouping so well understood that it caught the eye of passers by, and even the most skilful painters came several times to admire it. It was the work of eight days, and even so he worked only in the mornings, his delicate health, or rather his weakness, not allowing him to paint any longer. It is the only one of his works which slightly sharpened his self esteem: he admitted this to me unhesitatingly.'
Soon after painting the Enseigne Watteau relapsed into a state of languor, and, fearing that he might inconvenience Gersaint, he insisted on retiring to the country. Gersaint found him a house at Nogent, near Vincennes, his birthplace, and there in the following summer he died, at the age of thirty seven.
Gersaint's narrative suggests several reasons why the Enseigne is exceptional. It was painted fast, and as a rule Watteau had painted slowly; it is on a large scale (over ten feet long), and the best of Watteau's other pictures are small; it was painted from nature and Watteau's usual procedure was to piece together his pictures from drawings in his sketch books, many of which he used several times.
Of the two surviving drawings for the Enseigne, one, a study for the lady in lavender, may have been done earlier, but the other, a sketch of the packers, has a haste and urgency unique in Watteau's work. It is perhaps the only one of his drawings not done for its own sake, but with another end in view. Most revealing of all, Gersaint's account shows us that the Enseigne was painted after a period of inaction and as a result of a strong inner compulsion.
Several of Watteau's friends described his character with the classical precision inherited from the seventeenth-century, and the results are remarkably consistent. He was all that the apologists of the aesthetic movement felt an artist should be: proud, delicate, solitary, dissatisfied with his work. Gersaint had great difficulty in getting him to relinquish his pictures before he could rub them out, and he frequently complained that he was being overpaid for such trifles. He had a passion for independence. When his pedantic friend, the Comte de Caylus, gave him a lecture on his unstable way of life Watteau replied, "The last resort is the hospital, isn't it? There no one is refused admission"; an answer which, as the de Goncourts truly said, brings him close to our own time.
He knew he was consumptive, although how early the disease began to affect him it is hard to say. One may fancy that at a certain point in his work the tension increases. The hands of his figures, which, far more than their faces, betray their restless inner life, seem to grow more strained and nervous, so that the skin is stretched tight over the bone. In fact, arguments based on chronology are inconclusive, as Watteau's drawings and pictures are extremely difficult to date; and the second version of the Embarquement pour Cythere, which was certainly painted when his health was failing, is the most masterly and vigorous of all his works.
Yet the Enseigne suggests that while his fingers were growing numb in the London fog, he was passing through a crisis of the creative mind. Whatever its causes, this crisis manifested itself in two ways, the need for new subjects and the search for a new basis of arrangement. Watteau (it is the first thing said about him by every writer since the de Goncourts) is the poet of illusion. His subjects are make believe, his figures are half in fancy dress and his most realistic works are those which represent actors. Owing to his extraordinary skill in delineating the tangible reality of details - hands, heads and the texture of silk - these illusions became credible and offered the most delightful escape from life since the time of Giorgione: the vogue of his imagery began with his first exhibited picture and lasted a century. When one considers that Fragonard, who, in his best paintings, is still cultivating Watteau's garden, was born ten years after Watteau died, one can see how tenaciously eighteenth-century taste clung to the myth of the enchanted picnic. Watteau was, and surely felt himself to be, a prisoner of the fashion which he had created; hence his impatience with all that he had done, and hence the request which so horrified Gersaint, that his last picture should not be a fete champetre, but a shop sign.
Stylistically, too, he had reached an impasse. Caylus has been derided for saying that he was deficient in the art of composition; but from the academic point of view he was right. Watteau never mastered the baroque trick of relating figures in depth. In his large pictures the groups are dotted about in rows, with a back cloth behind them; only in his small pictures, where all the figures are in the same plane, is there a perfect feeling of unity (a visit to the Wallace collection will confirm this). The great exception is the Embarquement, where Watteau has had the inspired idea of making his departing figures vanish down the side of the bank and reappear by their boat, thus avoiding the problem of the middle distance. It is a device of mannerist painting perfectly appropriate to the subject, but not to be repeated.
At the same time he turned for help to the formality of an architectural setting, and the first result was the Plaisirs du Bal at Dulwich, the most beautiful Watteau in England. This, we may suppose, was the solution which was working in his mind during his months of numbness, and which he was so eager to realise when he went to Gersaint on his return.
The Enseigne employs the schematic perspective of fifteenth-century Florence, which had been revived by the Dutch some sixty years earlier. The setting is a box, with walls converging on a central vanishing point, and with a chequered foreground to lead in the eye. But this box is also a stage (it was in fact in the theatre that the devices of Albertian perspective had their most prolonged success); and in the disposition of the figures, which Gersaint found so natural, Watteau has used the arts of the stage director. What a genial piece of stagecraft, to put the farmer's boy, who brought the straw for the packingcase, in front of the proscenium arch. By thus establishing his actors on a stage he has preserved his detachment, in spite of the fact that they are no longer creatures of illusion, but real and familiar.
This formalised setting has allowed him the symmetrical interplay of tone and colour which was the first thing to strike me in the Enseigne. But by a stroke of inspiration the walls of his perspective box do not imprison the eye, for they are covered with shadowy promises of escape, the pictures in Gersaint's gallery. Interiors of picture galleries were a favourite subject in an age of enlightened collectors, for they both served as a record and multiplied the pleasures of identification. But the pictures in Gersaint's shop are subordinate to the tonality of the whole. We can guess at the authorship of one or two - Rubens, Ricci, Mola - and Watteau has enjoyed making fanciful transcriptions of their designs; but they emerge from the penumbra only far enough to enrich the tone of the background with a play of muted colour.
The value to Watteau of this classical framework lay in the fact that he was not naturally a baroque artist. This is obvious enough if one compares his drawings with those of Rubens. Watteau did not see form as a series of flowing curves but as lines drawn taut as a bowstring. The poses and gestures of his figures may suggest easy movement, but the substructure of even his hastiest sketch is severe. In the Enseigne the standing lady and the kneeling connoisseur are examples of this rectilinear severity, and all the figures, except the packer in the white shirt, have an underlying sharpness of accent. They are more at home in a perspective box than in a feathery park.
But once again Watteau has concealed this severity by the grace of his handling. The Enseigne is painted lightly and rapidly, and without the rich texture of his other pictures. I find it hard to believe that the ladies' silk dresses took him only eight days, but the other figures have the freshness of his drawings. In this Watteau has achieved one of his aims, for we know that he valued his drawings more highly than his pictures, and was tormented by the fact that he could not preserve their qualities in paint. The greater naturalness of the figures, which Gersaint mentions in his description of the Enseigne, was really a liberation of Watteau's own nature. It is as if all the skill which he has hitherto felt bound to keep in reserve, as a jewel setter might lock up his precious stones, had been suddenly poured out quite freely, as if jewels were as common as violets and anemones. Perhaps that is why the Enseigne, in spite of the frivolity of its subject, gives one the feeling of an extremely serious picture. Like the late works of Titian, Rembrandt and Velasquez, it consummates some mystic union between the artist and his art.