Jean-Antoine Watteau

Jean-Antoine Watteau

Jean-Antoine Watteau was a French great painter and draughtsman of the 18th cent. During his short life he managed to create so many works, not all long-livers could have vied with him. Being one of the main promotes of Rococo style, he introduced the genre of fêtes galantes. The artist left after himself a number of masterpieces, distinguished by amazingly subtle painting and palette of emotions, virtuosity of composition that sometimes reminded of theatrical “mise en scene”.

Early life. Beginning of the artistic career and influences

Jean-Antoine Watteau was born on the 10th of October, 1684 in the town of Valenciennes, on the north of France, in a family of an artisian. He probably recieved his first lessons of painting from a provincial master Jacques-Albert Gerin, who painted the altarpieces of local churches. Gerin was a rather mediocre artist, so Antoine very soon overtopped him. After that, a young talent met another artist, who pretended to be a promising stage designer, invited to work in Paris Opera. Watteau, desiring for more, begged his new teacher to take him to the capital. So, in 1702 he left for Paris, penniless, and started working in the Opera. His pseudo-guru very soon gave up this job and came back home, but Jean-Antoine stayed in Paris. Work in the theater was a very important factor that influenced his style.

To practice his skills and survive somehow, he started copying Flemish and Dutch genre scenes in one workshop. Luckily, very soon the painter met Claude Gillot, from whom absorbed taste for grotesque and comic scene of masquerades, commedia dell’arte. However, mere copying of Gillot’s manner couldn’t satisfy Watteau, therefore he decided to move on and was accepted to the workshop of Claude Audran – a painter, who was engaged in decorating Château de Marly and Château de Meudon and a curator of Luxembourg palace. There Antoine saw impressive canvases of Peter Paul Rubens for the first time. As it would become obvious later, this experience would inspire him to continue aesthetical tradition of the great Flemish master with its openness to the sensual aspect of life.

On the way to fame

During 1708-1709 Jean-Antoine Watteau studied the Academy of Fine arts, where he received the recognition of the direction. President of the Academy Charles de La Fosse (who was Rubensist by his artistic principles) even ordered him a picture for his dwelling. Watteau always dreamed of visiting Rome, so he decided to enter the academic competition. Unfortunately, he got only the second prize and had to come back to Valenciennes.

Not long before his departure, the painter made a battle scene that interested a dealer Pierre Sirois. The tradesman ordered him one more work on this topic. As Antoine’s native town was close to the battle-fields of the War of the Spanish Succession, he mastered this genre and soon sent “The Bivouac” painting to Sirois. But it wasn’t a scene of war by the matter of fact. His battle painting didn’t depict horrors or tragedies of war, but resting soldiers or refugees, relocation of squadrons, etc. They have a lot of common features with typical scenes of every-day life. Nevertheless, dollish figures of warriors or civilians with a flavor of elegance, wasn’t the main point in these pieces, as they were defined by the cogency and realism of the plot, fullness of observations. Expressiveness of poses and gestures were skillfully combined with lyrical landscapes.

Watteau’s paintings remained mainly undated, so it’s difficult to retrace the evolution of his oeuvre. Anyway, it’s obvious that in his early works we don’t see the bitterness and melancholy typical for mature stage. “Savoyard”, that corresponds to the beginning of 1710s, when he came back to Paris, catches the eye with its special sincerity and lyricism.
Just at that time Jean-Antoine became got acquainted with a prominent satirical writer of the 18th cent. Alain-Rene Lesage and was represented to a wealthy collector Pierre Crozat. In the mansion of Crozat he could enjoy a unique collection of old masters’ paintings, sculptures etc. Gradually, from an artesian genre-painter, Watteau used to be in his early years, he turned into a popular personality among aristocracy. Alas, deeper insight into the reality was entailed by the feeling of its contradictions that darkened a poetic dream of Beauty.

Fetes galantes

An important part among Antoine’s ‘ripe’ works played fetes galantes – gallant festivals. Salons of high society and theatrical masquerades patron of art Crozat used to organize gave him a plenty of vivid impressions, connected with this subject. His canvases weren’t pure fantasy as we could find even some portraits of his friends on them. “The love feast” canvas belongs to this category, showing gentlemen and ladies in a park, near the statue of Aphrodite with Amour. Matching figures and landscape, details, Watteau created a certain emotional atmosphere. Yet, a keen observer would notice dispassionateness and abstracting from the painted – it’s the result of the discrepancy between Dream of the artist and Thruth of life. This inner discord is slightly perceptible, nevertheless, important element of Jean-Antoine’s works.

Method of the painter could be characterized by an advice, given to his apprentice Nicolas Lancret to “leave the studio and to take no further guide but nature, to draw views of the landscapes in the environs of Paris, and to invent compositions in which he could use his studies”. In 1717, Watteau undertook a second unattempt to receive Prix de Rome and presented to the Academy his famous piece “Pilgrimage to the island of Cythera” that occurred too well this time. Instead of one-year travel to Rome he was accepted as a member of the Academy. “Pilgrimage to the island of Cythera” is one of his best compositions, which resembles Venetian school with its splendour of golden and silver-bluish hues. Its idea evokes associations with Ruben’s “Garden of Love”, but for sure its sensual part is more muted – figures seems almost immaterial.

Almost all Antoine’s creatopns are small-scale. They were typical samples of rocoro taste, when rhythmic organization of objects is closing to decorative arabesques, so popular in this epoch. Ornamental effect is achieved due to light and complicated winding shapes and silhouettes. None (even Watteau’s pupils Lancret and Pater) would overcome gentleness and fragility of Watteau’s fetes galantes.

Theatrical theme

As it has been already said in the beginning, many of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s compositions resemble theatrical scenes, telling about strange, a little bit amusing and nostalgic heroes. But a theatrical topic itself interested him. In the last years his most considerable canvases, dedicated to this issue, appeared.

Master couldn’t boast of good health. And around 1720s he visited Britain, possibly, hoping for medical help. There he created a work called “Italian comedians” (probably as payment for a doctor). It was partly prompted by the return to Paris of Italian actors, who hadn’t been allowed to France since the end of the 17th cent. for their jeers at those-in-power of the country. Very often, the artists replaced a real setting with imaginative landscape with his heroes standing solely against this background. The brightest example is “Gilles” that provoked numerous discussions about its hidden meaning.

Watteau’s last work was “The shop sign of Gersaint” that was painted as a shop-sign for his close friend Edme François Gersaint. Jean-Antoine died soon in 1721 from tuberculosis, almost on the hands of Gersaint.

Graphics of Watteau

Graphical heritage of Watteau is one of the most significant pages of French art of the 18th cent. The artist usually draw from life, in three colors, using black chalk, sanguine and crayon. These were mostly sketches for future canvases, so a wide range of personages could be seen on them – aristocrats and beggars, soldiers and noble ladies, peasants and artists. All this collection of character, despite its preparatory function, is absolutely artistically self-sufficient. Airy and curvy lines recreated space, flowing of light, shimmering of textures and soft, hazy atmosphere – Watteau’s drawings assimilated the same poetry his painting has.


Gersaint wrote an interesting and candid words about him that explain much of his artistic personality “He had quite a restive and inconstant temper, strong will; a free-thinker by his frame of mind, he lead a wise life; he was impatient, timid, cold and awkward in communication, treated others frostily and reservedly with strangers, good but tough friend, misanthrope, even captious and mordant critique, always unsatisfied with himself and others and hardly pardoned people; talked little but well; liked reading a lot; that was his only entertainment he allowed himself during leisure; though wasn’t educated, judged literature rather sensibly”.

Brother Goncourt about Watteau

“Watt – the great poet of the eighteenth century. Masterpieces of dreams and poetry, created by his mind, filled to the brim with extraordinary grace of life … like a Watteau again revives the beauty. But this is not the beauty of antiquity that lies in the perfection of the marble Galatea or material embodiment seductive Venus, and the medieval charm of austerity and toughness. The paintings by Watteau beauty is the beauty: this is what a woman shrouded cloud of appeal, her charm, the very essence of physical beauty. This is something subtle that it seems smile, the devil, the soul forms the spiritual entity of matter”.