Jean-Antoine Watteau images and biography
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Jean-Antoine Watteau
(1684-1721)

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(The following biography was written by Lisa MacDonald especially for the Artchive.)

During the 18th century, there was a developing interest in and great acceptance of nature. Not only the earth, the trees, and flowers, but also the acceptance of simple human urges and instincts increased. Mankind was now seen as the most interesting aspect of nature: good, beautiful, ugly or harsh...these attributes were all accepted in concert with the notion that the things of nature could not be bad. This was the perfect time for Jean Antoine Watteau to come upon the scene for he indeed felt a sympathy and affinity toward mankind.
Watteau was born in Valenciennes in October of 1684. Not much is known about Watteau's family except that his father was a tile maker who was prone to drinking and brawling. Watteau showed artistic ability at a young age and it is possible that he first studied under a local artist named Jacques-Albert Gerin. His early drawings were of the local townspeople, shop keepers, and street clowns in Valenciennes. Like other young artists, Jean Antoine went to Paris in 1702 with the hope of entering a studio where he could refine his art. He worked as a second rate painter before becoming acquainted with Claude Gillot. Gillot was a set designer for the stage and it was Gillot who exposed Watteau to the Commedia Dell'arte. These theatrical themes appear throughout Watteau's oeuvre: examples are Le Mezzetin (1718) which can be viewed at New York's Metropolitan Museum and the later work Gilles at the Louvre.
It is not known for how long Watteau remained with Gillot, but Watteau also studied with the decorator Claude Audran in 1708. So much is made of the fact that Watteau was the inventor of the Fete Galante, that his contributions to 18th century ornamental decoration almost go unnoticed. Under Audran, Watteau became instrumental in developing what is known as chinoiseries and singeries. These decorations were based on oriental subject matter and monkey motifs which were applied to panels, furniture and porcelain.
In 1709, Watteau competed for Prix de Rome but failed to take first place. At this point he left Paris, and returned home to console and replenish himself. He felt that it was from his home town that he derived his strength. In fact, later in his life, when he was dying from tuberculosis, he was convinced that if he could get home he would get better. It was perhaps also his Flemish background which gave to Watteau his admiration of Peter Paul Rubens, who was the main influence on Watteau's formative years. Although probably already familiar with Rubens, it was Audran's position as Keeper at the Luxembourg Palace which allowed Watteau to study Rubens' Marie de Medicis series. Watteau also studied the great Venetians and in particular appreciated Veronese and Titian. The merging of all these influences and Watteau's own painterly style became known as Rubenisme, one of the most important artistic movements in France during the 18th century.
In 1712, Watteau again competed in the Prix de Rome. No prize was offered that year, but Charles de la Fosse and Academy President Corneille Van Cleve recognized Watteau's talent and invited him to submit to the Academie de Peinture. Watteau became a full member of the French Royal Academy in 1717. His reception piece, or morceau de reception, was entitled l'Embarquement de Cythere (1717) which now resides in the Louvre. There is also a second version of this painting known as Le Pelerinage a Cythere (1718), which is in Berlin. A good deal of confusion surrounds the title of these works. The complications result, in part, from misunderstandings within the Academy in naming Watteau's subject matter, and, in part, from the title's translation from the French to English. Confusion also revolves around the issue of whether or not the painting is about a departure from Cythera or an arrival. Most critics feel it is about a departure despite its popular English translation: The Embarkation for Cythera.
Cythera was the island where Venus was born. It was a special place only for lovers. And it is in this place that we find our boarding party. We can note that the statue of Venus has already been bedecked with roses and garlands. Our elegant gentlemen help the ladies to their feet. And perhaps the most touching aspect is the melancholy and side long glances of the women showing what can be perceived as a reluctance to leave this beautiful and restful surrounding. Watteau's theatrical influence is also apparent, as his composition has been likened to a choreographed minuet. Indeed, Watteau's work produces an ambiance which leaves the viewer with a poignant longing. The day of love has come to an end.
The Embarkation shows French Rococo at its peak. The elegant men, the women dressed in their shimmering silks, and the rose-cheeked cherubs are all indicative of the style of this movement .It was with this painting that Watteau became known as the painter of the Fetes Galantes.
In addition to being a vibrant colorist, Watteau was a superb draftsmen. Hundreds of his drawings survive which show his concentration on the human form. He drew from life and his drawings are studies of hands, fingers, and limbs executed in his favorite media, trois crayons. A master of nuance, Watteau's ability to express specific gestures, attitudes and poses is virtuoso and these drawing are much sought after today.
One of his most famous works was produced in only eight days. It was created for Watteau's friend and art dealer Gersaint. Le Enseigne de Gersaint (1720) is a tour de force of Watteau's draftsmanship and his skill as a colorist. This painting is believed to be a sign which hung outside Gersaint's shop. It is an excellent example of genre painting for here we see the everyday life of the townspeople and we learn that Gersaint sold paintings, framed mirrors, and toiletries for a refined, aristocratic clientele. Perhaps Watteau was compelled to became a chronicler of everyday life because for him it was natural, and therefore truthful and honest. This new attitude is representative of the humanistic ideology of the 18th Century but it was Watteau whose art embodied and propelled a more humane attitude toward genre painting and common man. It was a time when grace and elegance were held in high esteem while at the same time Revolution and industry seemed to be wiping away these very same ideals.
Jean Antoine Watteau died July 18, 1721. He was thirty seven years old and at the height of his career. His legacy included a direct impact on landscape painting and genre painting. Several artists followed in Watteau's footsteps, including Nicholas Lancret and Pierre-Antoine Quillard.

©1997 Lisa MacDonald

Written Resources:

Levy, Michael., Painting and Sculpture in France 1700-1789.
Yale University Press., New Haven and London, 1993.

Vidal, M., Watteau's Painted Conversations.
New Haven and London. 1992.

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Jean-Antoine Watteau Images

1716 Flora
c. 1716-17 The Perspective
c. 1716-17 Pilgrimage to Cythera
c. 1716-17 DETAIL OF: Pilgrimage to Cythera
c. 1716-17 Two Studies of the Head and Shoulders of a Little Girl
1717 The Embarkation for Cythera
1717 DETAIL OF: The Embarkation for Cythera
1718 Les Charmes de la vie (The Delights of Life)
1718 DETAIL OF: Les Charmes de la vie (The Delights of Life)
1718 Gilles
1719 Le Faux pas (The Misstep)
1719 Mezzetin
1719 Plaisirs d'amour (The Pleasures of Love)
1719 Reunion en plein air (Meeting in the Open Air)
c. 1720 Voulez-vous triompher des Belles? (Do You Want to Succeed with Women?)
1720-21 Sous un habit de Mezzetin (In Mezzetin's Costume)
1721 Gersaint's Shopsign
1721 DETAIL OF: Gersaint's Shopsign




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