Jean-Antoine Watteau

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Jean-Antoine Watteau

French painter, draftsman and printmaker

Born 1684 - Died 7/18/1721

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WATTEAU, ANTOINE (1684-1721), French painter, was born in Valenciennes, of humble Flemish origin. Comte de Caylus, his staunch friend of later years, and his first biographer, refers to Watteau's father as a hard man, strongly disinclined to accede to his son's wish to become a painter; but other accounts show him in a kinder light as a poor, struggling man, a tiler by trade, who secured for his son the best possible education. Certain it is that at the age of fourteen Watteau was placed with Gerin, a mediocre Valenciennes painter, with whom he remained until 1702. It is to be assumed that he learnt far more from the study of Ostade's and Teniers's paintings in his native town than from his first master's teaching. Not only in subject-matter, but in tbeir general tonality, his earliest works, like La Vraie Gaiete (True Cheerfulness), which was in the collection of Sir Charles Tennant, suggest this influence. Gerin died in 1702, and Watteau, almost penniless, went to Paris, where he found employment with the scene-painter Metayer. Things, however, went badly with his new master, and Watteau, broken down in health and on the verge of starvation, was forced to work in a kind of factory where devotional pictures were turned out in wholesale fashion. Three francs a week and meagre food were his reward; but his talent soon enabled him to paint the St Nicolas, the copying of which was allotted to him, without having to refer to the original. Meanwhile he spent his rare leisure hours and the evenings in serious study, sketching and drawing his impressions of types and scenes. His drawings attracted the attention of Claude Gillot, an artist imbued with the spirit of the Renaissance, who after having successfully tried himself in the mythological and historical genre, was just at that time devoting himself to the characters and incidents of the Italian comedy. Gillot took Watteau as pupil and assistant, but the young man made such rapid progress that he soon equalled and excelled his master, whose jealousy led to a quarrel, as a result of which Watteau, and with him his fellow-student and later pupil, Lancret, severed his connection with Gillot and entered about 1708 the studio of Claude Audran, a famous decorative painter who was at that time keeper of the collections at the Luxembourg Palace. From him Watteau acquired his knowledge of decorative art and ornamental design, the garland-like composition which he applied to the designing of screens, fans and wall panels. At the same time he became deeply imbued with the spirit of Rubens and Paolo Veronese, whose works he had daily before him at the palace; and he continued to work from nature and to collect material for his formal garden backgrounds among the fountains and statues and stately avenues of the Luxembourg gardens. His chinoiseries and singeries date probably from the years during which he worked with Audran. Perhaps as a recreation from the routine of ornamental design, Watteau painted at this time The Departing Regiment, the first picture in his second and more personal manner, in which the touch reveals the influence of Rubens's technique, and the first of a long series of camp pictures. He showed the painting to Audran, who, probably afraid of losing so talented and useful an assistant, made light of it, and advised him not to waste his time and gifts on such subjects. Watteau, suspicious of his master's motives, determined to leave him, advancing as excuse his desire to return to Valenciennes. He found a purchaser, at the modest price of 60 livres, in Sirois, the father-in-law of his later friend and patron Gersaint, and was thus enabled to return to the home of his childhood. In Valenciennes he painted a number of the small camp-pieces, notably the Camp-Fire, which was again bought by Sirois, the price this time being raised to 200 livres; this is now in the collection of Mr W. A. Coats in Glasgow. Two small pictures of the same type are at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Returning to Paris after a comparatively short sojourn at Valenciennes, he took up his abode with Sirois, and competed in 1709 for the Prix de Rome. He only obtained the second prize, and, determined to go to Rome, he applied for a crown pension and exhibited the two military pictures which he had sold to Sirois, in a place where they were bound to be seen by the academicians. There they attracted the attention of [Charles] de la Fosse, who, struck by the rare gifts displayed in these works, sent for Watteau and dissuaded him from going to Italy, where he had nothing to learn. It was to a great extent due to de la Fosse and to [Hyacinthe] Rigaud that Watteau was made an associate of the Academy in 1712, and a full member in 1717, on the completion of his diploma picture, The Embarkment for Cythera, now at the Louvre. A later, and even more perfect, version of the same subject is in the possession of the German emperor. It is quite possible that the superb portrait of Rigaud by Watteau belonging to Mr Hodgkins, was painted in acknowledgment of Rigaud's friendly action.

Watteau now went to live with Crozat, the greatest private art collector of his time, for whom he painted a set of four decorative panels of The Seasons, one of which, Summer, is now in the collection of Mr Lionel Phillips. Crozat left at his death some 400 paintings and 19,ooo drawings by the masters. It is easy to imagine how Watteau roamed among these treasures, and became more and more familiar with Rubens and the great Venetians. In 1719 or 1720 the state of his health had become so alarming that he went to London to consult the famous doctor Richard Mead. But far from benefiting by the journey, he became worse, the London fog and smoke proving particularly pernicious to a sufferer from consumption. On his return to Paris he lived for six months with his friend Gersaint, for whom he painted in eight mornings the wonderful signboard depicting the interior of an art dealers shop, which is nowcut into two partsin the collection of the German emperor. His health made it imperative for him to live in the country, and in 1721 he took up his abode with M. le Feyre at Nogent. During all this time, as though he knew the near approach of the end and wished to make the best of his time, he worked with feverish haste. Among his last paintings were a Crucifixion for the curé of Nogent, and a portrait of the famous Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera, who at the same time painted her portrait of Wattea. His restlessness increased with the progress of his disease; he wished to return to Valenciennes, but the long journey was too dangerous; he sent for his pupil Pater, whom he had dismissed in a fit of ill-temper, and whom he now kept by his side for a month to give him the benefit of his experience; and on the 18th of July 1721 he died in Gersaint's arms.

Watteau's position in French art is one of unique importance, for, though Flemish by descent, he was more French in his art than any of his French contemporaries. He became the founder and at the same time the culmination of a new school which marked a revolt against the pompous decaying classicism of the Louis XIV period. The vitality of his art was due to the rare combination of a poets imagination with a power of seizing reality. In his treatment of the landscape background and of the atmospheric surroundings of the figures can be found the germs of impressionism. All the later theories of light and its effect upon the objects in nature are foreshadowed by Watteau's fêtes champêtres, which give at the same time a characteristic, though highly idealized, picture of the artificiality of the life of his time. He is the initiator of the Louis XV period, but, except in a few rare cases, his paintings are entirely free from the licentiousness of his followers Lancret and Pater, and even more of Boucher and Fragonard. During the last years of his life Watteaus art was highly esteemed by such fine judges as Sirois, Gersaint, the comte de Caylus, and M. de Julienne, the last of whom had a whole collection of the masters paintings and sketches, and published in 1735 the Aberg de la vie de Watteau, an introduction to the four volumes of engravings after Watteau by Cochin, Thomassin, Le Bas, Liotard and others. From the middle of the 18th century to about 1875, when Edmond de Goncourt published his Catalogue raisonn of Watteau's works and Cayluss discourse on Watteau delivered at the Academy of 1748, the discovery of which is also due to the brothers de Goncourt, Watteau was held in such slight esteem that the prices realized by his paintings at public auction rarely exceeded 100. Then the reaction set in, and in 1891 the Occupation according to Age realized 5200 guineas at Christies, and Perfect Harmony 3500 guineas. At the Bourgeois sale at Cologne in 1904 The Village Bride fetched £5000.

The finest collection of Watteaus works is in the possession of the German emperor, who owns as many as thirteen, all of the best period, and mostly from M. de Juliennes collection. At the Kaiser Friedrich museum in Berlin are two scenes from the Italian and French comedy and a fête champêtre. In the Wallace Collection are nine of his paintings, among them Rustic Amusements, The Return from the Chase, Gilles and his Family, The Music Party, A Lady at her Toilet and Harlequin and Columbine. The Louvre owns, besides the diploma picture, the Antiope, The Assemblage in the Park, Autumn, Indifference, La Finette, Gilles, A Reunion and The False Step, as well as thirty-one original drawings. Other paintings of importance are at the Dresden, Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Petersburg and Vienna galleries; and a number of drawings are to be found at the British Museum and the Albertina in Vienna. Of the few portraits known to have been painted by Watteau, one is in the collection of the late M. Groult in Paris.

AUTH0RITIES. Since the resuscitation of Watteaus fame by the de Goncourts, an extensive literature has grown around his life and work. The basis for all later research is furnished by Cayluss somewhat academic Life, Gersaint's Catalogue raisonné (Paris, 1744), and Juliennes Abergé. For Watteau's childhood, the most trustworthy information will be found in Celliers Watteau, son enfance, ses comtemporains (Valenciennes, 1867). Of the greatest importance is the Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre de Watteau, by E. de Goncourt (1875), and the essay on Watteau by the brothers de Goncourt in L'Art du XVIII siècle. See also Watteau by Paul Mantz (Paris, 1892); Antoine Watteau, by G. Dargenty (Les Artistes célèbres, Paris, 1891); Watteau, by Gabriel Sailles (Paris, 1892); Antoine Watteau by Claude Phillips (London, 1895; reprinted without alterations or corrections by the author, 1905); and Camille Mauclair's brilliant monograph Antoine Watteau (London, 1905), which is of exceptional interest as a physiological study, since the author establishes the connection between Watteau's art and character and the illness to which he succumbed in the prime of his life. (P.G.K.)

Source: Entry on the artist in the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia.


friend of

  • Vleughels, Nicolas (1668-1737)

influence on

relation of

  • Filloeul, Pierre (1696-)

student of

teacher of

uncle of

  • Watteau, Louis Joseph (1731-1798)

Image courtesy of Don Kurtz