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Jean-Antoine Watteau

Painter, etcher, commercial artist and draughtsman

Born
1684 in Valenciennes
Died
1721 in Nogent-sur-Marne
School
rococo

11 Works by Jean-Antoine Watteau

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Biography

The few facts that are known about Watteau's life are in distinct contrast to the great importance of his art, which set new standards in French painting at the beginning of the eighteenth century. One can mention his modest origins in provincial Flanders, then under French occupation, his first training under a little-known local painter, and his move to Paris around 1702. His two teachers there, Claude Gillot and Claude III Audran, nurtured his talent in different ways. Through Gillot he learned about possibilities of visualization provided by the theatre, and with them the notion of an ambiguous reality. From Audran he learned the art of the arabesque, whose dialectical combination of ornamental and figural forms decisively influenced his visual structure. Equally important was the fact that Audran, as Concierge of the Palais du Luxembourg, gave Watteau access to Rubens's Medici Gallery and thereby laid a crucial foundation for his continuing study of the Flemish painter and other old masters. Watteau's career coincided with the final years of the reign of Louis XIV and the beginning of the Regency, years in which the rigid norms set by the court and the Academy were loosening, and in which changing social structures were allowing new artistic notions to develop. Against this background, and encouraged by the increasing liberality of the Academy, Watteau developed the new pictorial genre of the 'Fête galante', by way of which he was finally inducted into the Academy in 1717 (second Rome Prize 1709, admission as a candidate 1712). His painting 'Le Pèlerinage à l'Ile de Cithère' hangs in the Louvre. Clearly familiar with various artistic traditions and utilising them in unconventional ways, Watteau created a genre in which an idyllic existence is depicted as a possible reality. He managed this because he combined elemental naturalness and highly stylised form - often by means of ironic distance. Given the situation described above, Watteau's patrons were hardly public institutions, but were rather drawn from circles of artists, antiquarians, publishers, and the well-to-do, worldly middle class. Most notable among the latter is the banker Pierre Crozat, whose house, containing a large collection of paintings and drawings from all schools, was a social and artistic meeting place that in many respects took on the nurturing and educational functions of the Academy. Descriptions of Watteau's life - and there are an especially large number of them - gave considerable latitude to a complex personality, something accorded to few other artists. A highly sensitive, mentally and physically vulnerable man, he not only confounded his contemporaries, but helped define the notion of the modern artist as both outsider and innovator. Avoiding the public and frequently changing his residence, Watteau spent his final years with friends such as the painter N. Vleughels and the art dealer Gersaint, for whom he created the now-famous shop sign (Charlottenburg Palace) in 1720. In the hope of recovering from a serious illness (possibly tuberculosis) in 1719 and 1720, Watteau visited London, where in a Dr. Mead he found a patron who contributed substantially to the early high regard of his art in England. Almost all of the important Watteau biographies (Jean de Jullienne 1726, Gersaint 1744, Dezallier d'Argenville 1745, Comte de Calus 1748) point out the distinctiveness and high quality of his drawings. Watteau's favourite medium was either red chalk or the combination of red, black, and white chalk that some of the colourists of the Academy, La Fosse and Coypel, for example, had already used in the waning seventeenth century. But quite unlike the academic painters, who generally studied their models with an eye to their function within a preconceived composition, Watteau drew from nature or after paintings and drawings of old masters with great intensity, obviously swiftly, in the most varied situations. His surviving sheets present figures - often in the proximity of repeated details - landscapes, ornaments, and only very rarely entire compositions. Watteau reused a portion of these studies by integrating them into his pictorial compositions - frequently with only very slight changes - concentrating and perfecting them in the painting process. The high esteem for and twofold importance of Watteau's drawing as both subordinate picture element and independent work of art was expressed and confirmed in Jean de Jullienne's 1728 publication 'Figures de différents caractères de paysages et d'études dessinées d'après nature par Antoine Watteau'.

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