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10, 1684, supposed day of Watteau’s birth, is actually the date he was
baptized at the church of St. Jacques in Valenciennes. He was the son of
Jean-Philippe Watteau, master roofer and carpenter, who knew how to read
and write, and was officially registered as a bourgeois. All we know about
Watteau’s mother is the name: Michele, née Lordenois; of Watteau’s
three brothers that they continued his father’s enterprise. It is unknown
whether his parents encouraged his artistic vocation. None the less they
allowed the boy, on turning fifteen, to get some instruction from Jacques-Albert
Gérin, the correct, mediocre official painter of Valenciennes.
After the death of Gérin (in 1702), Watteau studied with another
painter, who specialized in decorating theatres. Watteau accompanied this
man to Paris, where he was called to decorate the Opera House. Watteau
helped his master for a few months, then moved back to his native town.
From this short experience Watteau derived various staging devices, a certain
science of costume and setting, and theatrical poses, which lend his pictures
the character of pantomime. Later in Paris at the print-shop of Pierre
II Mariette and his son Jean, Watteau had ample opportunities to study
the great masters in the collection there (Rubens,
Bruegel, Callot and others). He met there (in 1703) Claude Gillot, who
asked him to come and lodge together. Gillot had won some recognition with
pictures drawn from the performances of the commedia dell’arte. It seems
that Watteau borrowed from him the idea of the fêtes galantes. In
1707 Watteau left Gillot for obscure reasons. His new partner was Claude
Before or after parting with Audran, at any rate between 1708 and 1711,
he left for Valenciennes with some money paid to him by the art dealer
Sirois, Gersaint’s father-in-law, for a picture. The town was then in a
zone of military operations. The warlike bustle and atmosphere inspired
him. Such subjects were, in fact, quite contemporary. Watteau did not work
on commission but only as it pleased him, which did not prevent his pictures
from being purchased. That accounts for the naturalness and vivacity of
his military-scene sketches and for the free treatment of his paintings.
Like veritable pieces of reportage, the painted scenes do not have the
usual solemnity of such pictures. Instead of celebrating grandees, they
capture the truth of life.
On his return to Paris Watteau competed for the Prize of Rome, which would
have enabled him to go to Italy and study the great masters there. The
attempt failed. Watteau was now living in Sirois’ house. He frequented
the theatres and, abandoning the military scenes, began to paint fêtes
galantes, quasi-pastoral idylls in court dress which became fashionable
in high society. Still dreaming of Italy, he submitted a few works (Jealousy,
or Pierrot Content, A Party for Four and A
Jealous Harlequin) to the Royal Academy of painting, in the persisting
hope of being sent to Rome. Once again he failed, but was asked to join
After 1712, Watteau disappeared for a while and this period is almost totally
unknown. In 1717, he joined the Academy of Painting. Of the two versions
of the Embarkation for Cythera, one
in Berlin and one in the Louvre, the earlier
one in Louvre was the enrollment picture which Watteau deposited with the
Académie in 1717 – a little tardily as he had become an Academician
The tinge of melancholy in Watteau’s work is matched by his life. A lifelong
sufferer from tuberculosis he went to London in 1719 partly in hopes that
the famous Dr. Mead might cure his consumption, partly, perhaps from desire
to extend his sphere of action. He was already, however, fatally ill. On
his return to France (in 1720), he painted his last great work, depicting
the interior of the shop of his art-dealer friend Gersaint, drawn from
nature and intended as a signboard, but in fact the most classical and
most perfectly composed of his paintings. L'Enseigne
de Gersaint. As his death approached, he destroyed, persuaded
by the abbot of Carreau Abby, a large number of his more erotic paintings.
Watteau never had his own house and moved from one friend, or patron, to
another. Watteau died in Gersaint’s house on 18 July 1721, in the arms
of Gersaint. He was 37.
During his 15-year artistic career, Watteau tacked a wide variety of genres,
subjects and techniques: tapestry cartoons and ceiling decorations, wainscot,
fans and harpsichord panels, also allegoric and satirical pictures, genre
painting, military, theatrical and religious scenes, landscapes and rustic
subjects, character heads and portraits. He gave his full measure, however,
in his fêtes galantes. By the specificity he lent this theme, which
is now strikingly associated with his name, Watteau succeeded in establishing
it as a distinct genre. These fêtes galantes entirely crystallize
the spirit of his painting. Essentially aristocratic in conception, Watteau’s
paintings fell into disfavor during the Revolution, and it was not until
the end of the 19th century that they regained popularity. Watteau is now
regarded as a forerunner of the Impressionists in his handling of color
and study of nature.
Watteau by Modest Marariu. Editions Meridiane. Bucharest. 1985.
Painting of Europe. XIII-XX centuries. Encyclopedic Dictionary.
Moscow. Iskusstvo. 1999.
Antoine Watteau. Leningrad. 1973.
Watteau by M. German. Moscow. 1980.
Antoine Watteau 1684-1721 (Masters of French Art) by Helmut Borsch-Supan.
and His World: French Drawing from 1700 to 1750 by Alan Wintermute,
Colin B. Bailey, American Federation of Arts. Merrell Publishers, 1999.
Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in Seventeenth- And Eighteenth-Century
France by Mary Vidal. Yale Univ Pr, 1992.
Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard : Masterpieces of French Genre Painting
by Colin B. Bailey, Philip Conisbee, Thomas W. Gaehtgens. Yale University
Watteau 1684-1721 (Masters of French Art) by Helmut Borsch-Supan.
and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France by Julie
Anne Plax. Cambridge University Press, 2000.