In France, the years between 1680 and 1750 – between Classicism and the high Enlightenment – represent a distinct cultural period that shares little with what preceded, and even less with what followed and its revolutionary consequences. Known as Rocaille in French and Rococo in English, it was characterised by its rejection of symmetry, classical literary forms, the hierarchy of the arts, and, most notably, established moral convention.
Recognized as an innovator by his contemporaries, the painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was one of the great representatives of this movement, his work focussing as never before on the feeling of love and on the pleasures of theatre, music and dance. Full of verve and intelligence, his highly original paintings led the development of the taste of his time.
Watteau’s art effects a synthesis of Northern European and Italian influences and foreshadows the major concerns of 18th-century European art. From Paris to London to Potsdam, the new aesthetic directions he explored would be echoed in the vision of several generations of thinkers, a vision of the world based not only on reason, but also on sensibility and faith in humanity.
A painter of the sensual world, a brief, bright meteor across the firmament of 18th-century French art, Antoine Watteau was the herald of a new generation of artists and the first to give such easy and graceful visual expression to music, dance and theatre.
Born to a family of modest means in Valenciennes in 1684, nothing suggested he would become one of the most sought-after of Parisian artists. Favoured by the collectors of an age of sensibility, he was the inventor of the genre of the fête galante, scenes of intimate sociability in artful outdoor settings where the human condition finds expression in the ambiguity of appearances.
Watteau only ever knew three cities: Valenciennes, where he was born; Paris, his adoptive home; and London, which he visited in 1719-1720, hoping to find there a cure for the consumption that would kill him.
Coming only second in the competition for the Prix de Rome, he did not make the journey to Italy, so indispensable to an academic training. Self-taught, he had joined the studio of Claude Gillot (1673-1722), taking from him his subjects inspired by the Italian commedia dell’arte. The decorative painter Claude Audran III, ‘keeper of the Palais du Luxembourg’ in Paris, introduced him to the delicate arabesques and powerful history painting of Rubens, notably the series The Life of Marie de’ Medici.
Watteau gained his profound familiarity with the work of the older masters from copying works held in the royal collections or owned by his wealthy patrons. The description of Watteau as a ‘Flemish painter’ so common in the biographies should not lead us to forget his interest in the Venetian masters, ‘whose colour and composition he admired,’ we are told by his friend and dealer Edme-François Gersaint.
The taste of the age was for Northern European art, and Watteau produced works that alluded to that tradition, pleasing the art-lovers of the time. Voltaire indeed referred to him as a ‘Flemish painter’ who was ‘in the graceful more or less what Teniers was in the grotesque’.
Pierrot, with guitar on his back, is one of the painter’s emblematic characters. His slender figure haunts the atmosphere of the fêtes galantes whose language was Watteau’s invention: these sequestered outdoor scenes where under music’s spell each figure’s role becomes more ambiguous than ever.
Though the actors of the comédie-Italienne were expelled from Paris in 1697, for insult to royal authority, they remained in many ways the heroes of the city’s fairground stages. Their return to Paris in 1716 was the object of a highly symbolic decision by the Regent Philippe d’Orléans, a lover of Italian culture.
‘This painter drew continually,’ said Dezallier d’Argenville in 1745. A connoisseur and a collector, Watteau’s celebrated biographer went on to say that ‘Even his walks and his leisure time were put to this use’.
Innumerable drawings of Watteau’s were known during the painter’s lifetime, and almost 700 of them are extant today. Highly varied in subject, his graphic work includes from 2,000 to 4,000 sketches, depending on how many one admits of his youthful productions, still almost entirely unknown.
‘Watteau’s drawings are valued by collectors. Red chalk is what he most often used, on white paper,’ Dezallier added. There are few drawings that show on the same sheet two musicians playing different instruments; more common are the consistently lively sketches grouping together multiple views of the same player, whether violinist, guitarist or bagpiper.
Other drawings again – the majority – offer a focus on the individual, sometimes indeed a portrait of a single musician. All testify to Watteau’s dexterity, his rapidity, and his exceptional ability to seize a gesture, ephemeral as a note of music.
During the Spring of 2013, BOZAR EXPO worked in cooperation with the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille in their presentation of a major interdisciplinary project. Consisting of an ambitious exhibition, various concerts and debates, the project had a particular focus on the musical scenes frequently depicted in Antoine Watteau’s work.
The exhibition, which had a particular focus on the musical aspect of Watteau’s painting, brought together a unique selection of fifteen of the artist’s canvases and thirty of his drawings, some of which have not been seen by the European public for more than 50 years. It also presented 50 engravings by his contemporaries, including François Boucher, Benoît Audran II, and Charles-Nicolas Cochin, who produced the finest engravings of the 18th century and spread Watteau’s art throughout Europe. Thanks to them, we have reproductions of paintings of his that have since been lost and it is possible to offer an almost complete overview of his work. This unprecedented combination of original paintings, drawings, and engravings, as well as archival material, scores, and musical instruments of the same period, is a first.
Text courtesy of BOZAR.