Three centuries ago today, on 18 July 1721, the master of Rococo painting, Antoine Watteau, died. In the first article of these two celebrating his life and work, I showed paintings culminating in his masterpiece of fête galante, The Embarkation for Cythera (1717).
Watteau’s fête galante continued to develop. His large Halt During the Chase from about 1717-18 brings an aristocratic couple on horseback to join two other courting couples, and the dogs to the left.
Although now excluded as a history painter, Watteau still painted several mythological subjects, including this splendid tondo of Ceres as the allegory of Summer, from about 1717-18. She holds the sickle of the harvest, and is surrounded by ripe wheat. At the left is a lion, and below that a lobster, representing the summer constellation of Cancer.
In another fête galante, Pleasures of Love from about 1718-19, he brings together his novel sub-genre and his career-long fascination for the commedia dell’arte, with a Pierrot figure playing a guitar and serenading the ladies of the foreground. More couples sit on the ground in the distance.
In about 1719, he brought his aristocratic lovers into Les Champs Élysées, which appears to show the gardens on the other side of what is now the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
It may have been that the title given to this painting was also a deliberate double entendre, covering both the earthly location and that in mythology: ‘the Elysian Fields’, the final resting place of the heroic and virtuous.
My personal favourite of all Watteau’s paintings is this stage scene, The Italian Comedians, which he completed in about 1720. This is his last and greatest visit to the commedia dell’arte, with Pierrot standing centre-stage, amid the rest of the cast.
His last major mythological painting was this unconventional treatment of the Judgement of Paris from about 1718-21. Paris, with Hermes/Mercury behind him, sits offering the golden apple of discord to a naked Aphrodite/Venus, who is covering her face with a veil. Beside her is her son Eros/Cupid, who looks away from Minerva/Athena, who holds her Aegis, bearing the face of Medusa the Gorgon. Behind her is Hera/Juno, with her peacock, who is stealing away with her right hand held in front of her face. Paris, as a former shepherd, rests his crook at the far left, and his sheepdog sleeps by his feet.
One of Watteau’s last completed paintings is one of his most unusual, The Shop Sign of Gersaint (1720). He painted this as a sign for the art dealer Edme François Gersaint in the centre of Paris, on the Pont Notre-Dame. Its little stories suggest the multiple narratives of Hogarth. It was never used for its original purpose, but was bought by one of Watteau’s patrons instead, and later its upper parts were extended from their original arched form.
Watteau had never enjoyed good health, and by 1720 he was sufficiently ill to travel to London to seek the aid of a fashionable physician. He returned to France, where he lived on the estate of his patron Abbé Haranger, in Nogent-sur-Marne, where he died of complications of tuberculosis on 18 July 1721, at the age of only thirty-six.
His drawings were turned into engravings, and popularised his work. His influence extended into fashion, and his paintings underwent periodic revival. Among the painters known to have been influenced by his work is JMW Turner.