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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Antoine Watteau (1684–1721)

One of the most brilliant and original artists of the eighteenth century, Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) had an impact on the development of Rococo art in France and throughout Europe lasting well beyond his lifetime. Living only thirty-six years, and plagued by frequent illness, Watteau nonetheless rose from an obscure provincial background to achieve fame in the French capital during the Regency of the duc d’Orléans. His paintings feature figures in aristocratic and theatrical dress in lush imaginary landscapes. Their amorous and wistful encounters create a mood but do not employ narrative in the traditional sense. During Watteau’s lifetime, a new term, fête galante, was coined to describe them. Watteau was also a gifted draftsman whose sparkling chalk sheets capture subtle nuances of deportment and expression.

Early Career and Training
The son of a roofer, Watteau was born in 1684 in Valenciennes, a small city in the north that had only been ceded to France from the Spanish Netherlands six years earlier. Details of his initial training remain obscure, but early biographers concur that shortly upon arriving in the French capital, Watteau was employed in the mass production of crude copies of devotional paintings. Sometime around 1705, he began working for Claude Gillot (1673–1722), who specialized in comic scenes inspired by the commedia dell’arte and who, in turn, introduced him to Claude Audran III (1658–1734), a designer of ornament and interior decoration. Working under these two influential masters, Watteau developed his mature style, increasingly incorporating theatrical subject matter and designs based on the airy arabesques that had begun to dominate interior design.

Despite his unconventional training, Watteau was permitted to compete for the Prix de Rome at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He won a second-place prize in 1709, but to his great disappointment was never sent to study in Italy. With the backing of Charles de la Fosse (1636–1716), a fellow admirer of Rubens and Venetian painting, Watteau was accepted into the Academy in 1712. His innovative subject matter did not fit into any established category in the academic hierarchy, and he was ultimately accepted with the unprecedented title “painter of fêtes galantes.” His reception piece, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (Musée du Louvre, Paris), was finally submitted to the Academy in 1717. It depicted amorous couples on the mythical island of Cythera, in various stages of their metaphoric “journey” of love.

Patrons and Protectors
With ingenuity and determination, Watteau continued his artistic education by copying works by Rubens and sixteenth-century Italian artists in the collection of Pierre Crozat (1665–1740), a wealthy banker and art collector. Landscape with an Old Woman Holding a Spindle (1972.118.237) is an example where Watteau carefully transcribed in red chalk the rustic, hilly Italian countryside, adding to his repertoire of motifs that would inspire the backgrounds of his imaginary landscapes. Around the same time Watteau was assiduously making copies from his renowned collection of drawings, Crozat commissioned from him a series of large oval paintings depicting the Four Seasons for his dining room in Paris. Study of a Nude Man Holding Bottles (1972.118.238) is one of a series of studies Watteau made for Autumn, now lost and known only through an engraving (28.113[2.52]).

Another of Watteau’s dedicated patrons and friends was Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766), who wrote an early biography of the artist and sponsored an unprecedented campaign to record his drawings as etchings, contributing immeasurably to his fame and influence as a draftsman. His collection included the Mezzetin (34.138), a bittersweet depiction of the commedia dell’arte character. He is shown seated and playing music in a garden, his pose evocative of the anguish of unrequited love. In a study for the head (37.165.107), Watteau focused on the figure’s plaintive expression. Jullienne also owned The French Comedians (49.7.54), a late canvas likewise inspired by the popular commedia dell’arte theater troupes, although it is unclear whether Watteau meant to portray a specific scene or specific actors.

Watteau as a Draftsman
Admiration for the drawings of Watteau has always been equal to that of his paintings. He drew few compositional studies; for the most part, his graphic oeuvre is made up of chalk studies of heads or figures. In contrast to prevailing practice, Watteau seems usually not to have made figure studies in preparation for predetermined compositions, but apparently filled sketchbooks with incisive renderings of figures drawn from life, which he would later mine for his painted compositions. A drawing of a Seated Woman (1975.1.763), for example, has captured all the spontaneity and grace of a young woman’s natural movements, yet does not seem to have been used in a painted composition.

Although he limited himself to chalk, there is a clear evolution in the technique of Watteau’s drawings. His earliest studies are in red chalk alone, with black chalk eventually added to the red, as in Savoyarde (1978.12.1). Around 1715, he added white chalk to the mix. Although Watteau did not invent the technique of trois crayons, or three chalks (Rubens and la Fosse, among others, had used it before him), his name is always linked to the technique for his intuitive mastery of it, melding red, black, and white to great painterly and coloristic effect. In Study of a Nude Man Holding Bottles (1972.118.238), the three colors of chalk, in combination with the tone of the paper reserve, create a convincing rendering of flesh tones.

Watteau’s artistic legacy pervades French art up to the emergence of Neoclassicism. The sweetness of his palette, an homage to Rubens and the colorism of sixteenth-century Venetian painting recast in delicate pastels to suit the scale and aesthetic of Rococo décor, was widely followed, as was his preference for erotic genre subjects adapted from seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish sources. Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater (1695–1736) (49.7.52) was Watteau’s only student, and his closest follower, but virtually every artist working in eighteenth-century France, from François Le Moyne (1688–1737) to François Boucher (1703–1770), to Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), owes a major debt to Watteau’s enigmatic fêtes galantes and elegant trois crayons drawings.