Saturday Art: Jean-Antoine Watteau
(Picture courtesy of Irina at flickr.com.)
(Picture courtesy of Jean Louis Mazziere at flickr.com.)
Remarkable animation of the spirit of his time seems to have been the major characteristic that brought Jean-Antoine Watteau to the ranks of foremost artists, and gave him distinction there.
One of the most brilliant and original artists of the eighteenth century, Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) had an impact on the development of Rococo art in France and throughout Europe lasting well beyond his lifetime. Living only thirty-six years, and plagued by frequent illness, Watteau nonetheless rose from an obscure provincial background to achieve fame in the French capital during the Regency of the duc d’Orléans. His paintings feature figures in aristocratic and theatrical dress in lush imaginary landscapes. Their amorous and wistful encounters create a mood but do not employ narrative in the traditional sense. During Watteau’s lifetime, a new term, fête galante, was coined to describe them. Watteau was also a gifted draftsman whose sparkling chalk sheets capture subtle nuances of deportment and expression.
Despite his unconventional training, Watteau was permitted to compete for the Prix de Rome at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He won a second-place prize in 1709, but to his great disappointment was never sent to study in Italy. With the backing of Charles de La Fosse (1636–1716), a fellow admirer of Rubens and Venetian painting, Watteau was accepted into the Academy in 1712. His innovative subject matter did not fit into any established category in the academic hierarchy, and he was ultimately accepted with the unprecedented title “painter of fêtes galantes.” His reception piece, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (Musée du Louvre, Paris), was finally submitted to the Academy in 1717. It depicted amorous couples on the mythical island of Cythera, in various stages of their metaphoric “journey” of love.
Admiration for the drawings of Watteau has always been equal to that of his paintings. He drew few compositional studies; for the most part, his graphic oeuvre is made up of chalk studies of heads or figures. In contrast to prevailing practice, Watteau seems usually not to have made figure studies in preparation for predetermined compositions, but apparently filled sketchbooks with incisive renderings of figures drawn from life, which he would later mine for his painted compositions. A drawing of a Seated Woman (1975.1.763), for example, has captured all the spontaneity and grace of a young woman’s natural movements, yet does not seem to have been used in a painted composition.
Although he limited himself to chalk, there is a clear evolution in the technique of Watteau’s drawings. His earliest studies are in red chalk alone, with black chalk eventually added to the red, as in Savoyarde (1978.12.1). Around 1715, he added white chalk to the mix. Although Watteau did not invent the technique of trois crayons, or three chalks (Rubens and La Fosse, among others, had used it before him), his name is always linked to the technique for his intuitive mastery of it, melding red, black, and white to great painterly and coloristic effect. In Standing Nude Man Holding Bottles (1972.118.238), the three colors of chalk, in combination with the tone of the paper reserve, create a convincing rendering of flesh tones.
Watteau’s artistic legacy pervades French art up to the emergence of Neoclassicism. The sweetness of his palette, an homage to Rubens and the colorism of sixteenth-century Venetian painting recast in delicate pastels to suit the scale and aesthetic of Rococo décor, was widely followed, as was his preference for erotic genre subjects adapted from seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish sources.
The times dictated his paintings subject and spirit, but Watteau’s mastery was unique. The paintings of pierrots, or harlequins, are reflected in Picasso’s artwork, and the painting below will remind us of much of that work.
(Picture courtesy of Jean Louis Mazlere at flickr.com.)