This weekend I mark the tercentenary of the death of Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), who was largely responsible for transforming the dying embers of the Baroque to the charming Rococo. Although I have no particular love of Rococo painting, Watteau is a major figure in the history of art in Europe, and a lasting influence. My small selection of his paintings in this and tomorrow’s articles will, I hope, demonstrate his genius and significance.
He was born in early October 1684 in north-eastern France, and after showing an early interest in painting was apprenticed to a local artist. He moved to Paris at the age of eighteen, where he first worked as a scene-painter before becoming a copyist of genre paintings. By 1705 he had been taken on as an assistant to Claude Gillot, where he developed a taste for theatrical paintings of the commedia dell’arte, which was to remain throughout his career.
Watteau next moved into decorative painting, and was able to see Rubens’ cycles painted for Marie de’ Medici in the Palais du Luxembourg, which were to be a lasting influence. He started painting on his own account, and once he had sold his first painting returned to his family home in Valenciennes. In 1709, he entered the competition for the Prix de Rome, but came second.
His tondo of The Monkey Sculptor probably dates from about 1710, and is an example of singerie, the playful substitution of monkeys in human roles, which was popular at the time.
The Robber of the Sparrow’s Nest was most probably painted at around the same time, and shows his rapid development of sophisticated compositions of figures in a leafy landscape.
The following year he painted his first masterpiece, Marriage Contract and Country Dancing (c 1711), which combines three stages of a wedding in a single image, as if in multiplex narrative. In the distance at the far left is the tower of the church where the priest brought the couple together in union in front of God. In the centre, they sign their contract of marriage, while around them is the country dancing of the secular celebration. It’s an elaborate scene which Watteau executes superbly.
Some of his earliest paintings show camp scenes, which seem to have evolved into another elaborate composition in Bivouac, which he probably painted during the period 1710-20.
In 1712, Watteau had a second and unsuccessful attempt at the Prix de Rome. He was persuaded that he had nothing to gain from spending time in Rome, and was accepted as an associate of the Royal Academy. He went to live with a rich financier who was the leading collector in France and a major patron, Pierre Crozat, where he enjoyed financial security at last.
The Foursome, from about 1713, marks a return to the theme of the theatre, with the Pierrot figure standing with his back to the viewer.
Not all of Watteau’s paintings are scenes of bucolic charm. Like most painters of the period, he succumbed to the occasional Lady at her Toilet, this from about 1716-18. Of particular interest here is his sketchy and painterly style, particularly in the fabrics and background. He developed this when working as a copyist.
In 1717, Watteau finally completed his most famous painting, which he intended as his reception piece for the Royal Academy, and brought him full membership that year: now commonly known as The Embarkation for Cythera, or Pilgrimage to Cythera, of which he also painted a second, more embellished version.
Its theme is amorous love, as indicated in the playful cascade of small amorini to the left. It has the sub-genre of fête galante, which is distinctive of the Rococo and of Watteau in particular, and denotes a party of pleasure as enjoyed by the aristocracy of the day. The term was invented by the Royal Academy to classify this painting, and unfortunately locked Watteau out of history painting, a far more serious and prestigious genre.
The scene is the Greek island of Cythera, modern Kythira off the Peloponnese Peninsula, which is one of the mythical birthplaces of Aphrodite/Venus, whose statue appears at the right. In the foreground, three couples are courting, while others further to the left and downhill towards the shore appear to be arriving on the island, rather than departing to travel to it.
While being a master of fête galante blocked Watteau’s appointment as a professor, he had still achieved a meteoric rise in less than a decade.