Antoine Watteau, Voulez-vous triompher des belles?
I am one of the few people I know who loves the work of Antoine Watteau. I would imagine that he bores most people these days. Even though almost all of his work is about love, there's not much sex in his pictures, and certainly nothing lewd. There's nothing sensational about any of it. Most people would find it to be too refined and decorous, a little too polite to be true. Like so much Rococo art, we imagine Watteau's work to be the stuff of refined amusement for an over-indulged and parasitic nobility. We might imagine the artist himself as a Parisian dandy of too-delicate sensibility.
It certainly came as a surprise to me many years ago to find out that Watteau was not any Parisian dandy. He wasn't even French. He was Flemish, from the city of Valenciennes that had only recently come under French dominion, and was still claimed by the Spanish Netherlands. Far from being refined and urbane, Antoine Watteau was a prole, the son of a roof tile maker with only the most minimal education. He spent his early years in Paris in dire poverty, mostly gravitating to his fellow Flemings in the city who helped him out with housing and employment. Never in robust health, he died young from tuberculosis (probably aggravated by his early hardships) at the age of 36.
He never moved in the aristocratic circles that we would assume. Frederick the Great collected Watteau's work enthusiastically as did English nobility, but not until long after the artist's death. In his lifetime, most of Watteau's collectors, admirers, and friends were quite bourgeois; bankers, merchants, theater folk, and other artists. The nobles housed at Versailles never heard of him, and probably wouldn't have liked him if they did.
Something else that is surprising is how early in the 18th century was Watteau's career. King Louis XIV was still alive for most of Watteau's life and career. The Roi-Soleil died in 1715, and Watteau died in 1721. Watteau predates most of what we would consider to be Rococo. While the mid 18th century loved Watteau's work, by the end of the century, critical taste turned upon him dismissing his work as just so much refined decadence. And so he would stay in the critical doghouse until the critics rediscovered his work in the late 19th century.
The painting above with the probably apocryphal title of Voulez-vous triompher des belles? looks at first glance to be a typical example of Rococo love in the shrubbery. We see silk satin rustling in the dark leaves at twilight as in so many later Rococo paintings (though never was the effect of shimmering silk against dark foliage so beautifully painted as by Watteau). If we look closely at it, there is a mysterious little drama taking place. A couple find themselves apart from the rest of the company beneath an old stone herm covered in vegetation. The man wears a mask and appears to be spooking the woman. She is indeed startled, but not amused as perhaps the man intended. She recoils as he lunges. He wears the costume of a very familiar figure from the Comedia dell'Arte, Harlequin, the trickster and scheming servant. She could be in the costume of Columbina. The people behind them are actors, we assume from the same troupe. They appear to be unaware of what is taking place on the other side of the herm, and busy with their own happy love making. A couple find themselves alone together and go through a very uncertain drama of trying to fathom each other's feelings. The situation is amusing, but with an air of desperation and melancholy about it. The stone herm looming in the dark shrubbery subtly reminds us that the time for youth, love, and life itself is fleeting, as fleeting as the time of twilight in which this little drama takes place.
Antoine Watteau, Assembly in a Park:
This painting is a subtle drama of success and failure in love. The couple on the left find success in a happy meeting of mutual feeling. Their forms are echoed in the trees suggesting that Nature blesses their success. On the right, a small gathering of people listens to a flute player. A man makes a desperate grope for the object of his affection. She rejects him. His gambit fails. The twilight time of day and the hazy transitions of color create a kind of dreamlike and transitory quality to this scene.
In his last years, King Louis XIV came under the influence of his very pious and bigoted mistress Madame de Maintenon. A pall of earnest and gloomy piety fell over the court of Versailles and spread throughout the country. Theater and musical concerts, already heavily regulated and censored, became even more so. Comedia dell'Arte troupes were forbidden to speak. Their performances were limited to mime. Eventually, all comedy performances were banned whether they were the sparkling sharp wit of Moliere or the lewd slapstick improvisations of Comedia dell'Arte. All public concerts of any music other than religious were also banned. Public displays of affection became illegal.
The young people of Paris took boats up the Seine to the forests on the city's outskirts to have their amusements far from the surveillance of Louis' morals police. Roving bands of musicians and actors took up residence in the forests entertaining crowds of Parisian young people with illegal concerts and stage plays. Illegality only enhanced their glamor and appeal.
Antoine Watteau, Fete Venitienne
The people who wear those shiny silks in Watteau's paintings are not aristocrats or rich people, but theater people; actors and musicians. Those silks in all their rich and fine colors bloom for us in this painting by Watteau of actors gathering under a reclining statue of Venus. They are not performing, but enjoying themselves, dancing, making music, gossiping, and flirting. Their's is a community founded upon feeling, especially the pursuit of love. Some of these figures are portraits, or are based on the likenesses of friends. The man with the large (and probably comic makeup) nose on the left dancing the quadrille with the brilliant young woman in the center is probably Watteau's friend and fellow Flemish painter in Paris, Nicolas Vleughels. After Watteau's death, Vleughels would direct the French Academy in Rome for the rest of his life. The man on the far right playing the bagpipe is probably a modified self-portrait.
Watteau, Fete Venetiennes, detail showing what may be the artist Nicolas Vleughels
Watteau, Fete Venitienne, detail showing the bagpipe player who may be a self portrait; this detail is a dazzling display of Watteau's sure hand with a brush and his amazing transitions of color from blue to a pale violet to golds, greens, and reds.
Watteau, Fete Venitienne, detail; I've always been fond of Watteau's girls. Yes, I'm a gay man, but they are all so pretty without looking shallow, and so self-assured without looking cold.
Watteau was the first artist to devote a career to painting outsiders, people on the social and economic margins; and in King Louis' final years, outside the law. He is the first to show them not only sympathetically, but with understanding and even admiration. They lead lives of emotional candor and authenticity very different from the anxious and constrained lives of both noble courtiers and bourgeoisie. This is an idea that would flourish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the work of artists like Gauguin, Picasso, and Kirchner.
Watteau was himself an outsider, kept impoverished for many years by the restrictions on foreign artists by the Parisian painters' guild. He was the first artist to defy convention and one of the few to get away with it. He never received a single public commission from Church or Crown, and never sought one. He must have been something of a character since biographies were written about him even before his death. One of the first was written soon after Watteau's death by his friend and collector, the scholar Philippe Comte de Caylus. Watteau comes off in Caylus' biography as a very shy and withdrawn young man with a streak of arrogant and prickly independence. Watteau spent his first years in Paris lonely and desperately poor working in a small shop on the Pont Notre Dame making copies of popular Dutch paintings. Watteau copied one popular painting of an old woman praying by Gerrit Dou so often that he claimed he could paint it with his eyes shut. That loneliness and poverty, together with the lessons of Dutch painting, seem to have haunted Watteau all his life. The memory of the chilly reception and rigid restrictions he received from the Parisian Painters' Guild probably played a large role in his abiding desire to avoid obligations and commissions.
Watteau worked for the decorative painter Claude Audran III and some of his work for Audran survives.
Watteau, a painted panel for a folding screen
We can glimpse something of Watteau's Dutch influence, and of the political turmoil of his home city of Valenciennes in his many paintings and drawings of soldiers. The Spanish Netherlands still claimed the city, and Watteau had to pass through a war zone to visit his family.
Watteau, Portal of Valenciennes
Watteau, drawing of soldiers; Watteau never shows soldiers in combat. They are always on guard duty, eating, or resting, as he probably saw them on his trips back to Valenciennes.
Where Watteau found contempt from the Parisian Painters' Guild, he found a surprising embrace from the Academie, all the more surprising because Watteau's small paintings of actors, musicians, and young people looking for love couldn't be more different from what this institution of the French state produced and promoted.
The Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailles was the last major construction project of the reign of Louis XIV, completed in 1710, five years before the king's death. It was designed by Jules Hardouin Mansart to be an enormous baroque interpretation of the Sainte Chapelle of King Louis IX (Saint Louis).
The Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles
The Academician Antoine Coypel painted the spectacular ceiling of the heavenly host.
Antoine Coypel's painting on the ceiling of the Royal Chapel showing
God the Father and the Heavenly Host
Another star of the Academie, Charles de la Fosse painted the Resurrection in the apse.
Charles de la Fosse's painting in the apse of the Royal Chapel of the Resurrection of Christ
It is hard to imagine 2 more polar opposite painters from Watteau, and yet, both of these very establishment figures admired Watteau's work enthusiastically and invited him to join the very prestigious Academie Royale in 1712. The Academie required candidates for admission to submit a morceau de reception, a reception piece, a painting whose subject was chosen by the Director. The Academie bent its own rules to accommodate Watteau. He was given unprecedented liberty to choose his own subject `a sa volonte' as it says in the Academie's records. Coypel himself presented the finished 6 feet wide canvas to the Academie jury. Their generosity and flexibility with Watteau is testimony to the very open and liberal character of the Academie in the years around King Louis' death.
Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera
This is the painting Watteau made for his reception into the Academie. He labored over it for a long time, not presenting the finished painting until 1717. Watteau's most famous painting is a strange hybrid of classical love poetry and memories of the young people of Paris enjoying themselves in the surrounding forests. The Academie records give us the title Pilgrimage to Cythera; like so many titles attached to Watteau's pictures, this may be apocryphal and not quite what the artist intended. It does indeed show visitors to the Island of Cythera, the mythic home of the goddess Venus. On the left, we see the ferry boat that brought the visitors to the island piloted by some kind of mythic figure come to life, a small cloud of putti float like bubbles above him. He may recall the boatmen who ferried young Parisians to the forests of Saint Cloud, but he is definitely not one of them.
Watteau, Cythera, detail
The goddess herself does not appear in the picture. An old herm on the right entwined with climbing roses stands for her presence. A misty twilit landscape that seems as ephemeral as the figures appear solid dominates most of the painting. The whole painting takes on a kind of transitory dreamlike state. Every aspect of the painting tells us that the event we are witnessing will dispel at any moment.
Watteau, Cythera, detail
Are people coming or going in this picture? I'm inclined to agree with Michael Levey in the great chapter on Watteau in his book Rococo to Revolution, we are watching people depart. Our clue is in the small group of people in front of the herm of Venus in the lower right corner of the picture. The couple on the right in front of the statue are still deep under the spell of love. A small putto, perhaps Cupid himself, wrapping himself in a shawl tugs at the woman's skirts as if to wake the lovers and tell them that it is time to leave. The couple immediately to the left gets up to leave, while the next couple on the left are on their way to the boat. The woman turns back to take a last look at a place and a moment of supreme happiness before leaving.
Watteau paints the bittersweet moment when the dream is over and it is time to wake up. The painting is a masterful series of color transitions from the warm umber earth to a variety of blues and whites in the atmosphere. The flicker of rose, white, blue, and green flashes across in the silks of the lovers against the earth colors dominating the picture. To our eyes, they are not bright colors, but they are very fine and rich colors making almost musical transitions from one to the other, and no single color is allowed to dominate. The whole painting is as ephemeral as a soap bubble, but much more serious.
Love and happiness are serious subjects for Watteau. He was keenly aware of how elusive they both are, and how brief the joy when they are achieved. The first great painter at the very beginning of the Enlightenment occupied himself, not with the triumphs of Reason Over Superstition that were on everyone's minds in the first half of the 18th century, but with the passions and their power, including their power to trump reason. Love is the serious business of forming a community of feeling, a difficult and perilous journey out of loneliness, according to Watteau. In the end, Watteau's paintings frequently contain reminders, according to Michael Levey, "... of what remains long after life and love are ended ('Le Buste/ Survit `a la cite')." For all of our struggles and labors, love and happiness are even more fleeting than life itself. Their mortality makes our joys all the more valuable; a very different message from that of scores of ascetics down through the centuries. Watteau sympathizes with all those caught up in the effort to find love and happiness, the things that make the whole bother of living worthwhile even if they are fleeting.
Watteau reveals his sympathies in the greatest of all sad clown paintings.
Antoine Watteau, Gilles
This painting shows an actor dressed as Pierrot (sometimes called Gilles in France). In Comedia dell'Arte, Pierrot is usually a slow dull witted character, the butt of Harlequin's tricks and jokes, and usually disappointed or cuckolded in love. Watteau shows him standing in dead center, dominating the picture, and yet profoundly isolated. The low slapstick comedy in the background only enhances his isolation. Watteau makes Pierrot and the donkey the only 2 figures looking out directly at us, a sly little joke reminding us of the character's customary role as a dolt.
Watteau, Gilles, detail
When we look at the figure of Pierrot, he is much more than his role. The expression on his face is both flat and unfathomably opaque. He faces us frontally with his straw hat framing his face like a halo in traditional images of Christ, but this figure is no Christ or Christ metaphor. If he is a metaphor for anything it is for Watteau himself. This is not a self-portrait, but Watteau clearly identifies with this figure; isolated, alone, and yet hungry for the applause of an audience. It is hard to tell which, but this painting suggests the brief awkward moment just before the play starts, or just after it ends in anticipation of the hoped for applause. Seldom was there ever painted a more complex and elusive face in art. The color harmonies, and especially the painting of the white silk baggy costume with its luminous varieties of shades of white, are amazing.
Pierrot appears in many paintings by Watteau playing a variety of roles.
Antoine Watteau, La Partie Quaree
Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians; this painting is an old favorite of mine painted for Dr. Robert Mead as payment for treatment.
Watteau made a trip to London to see Dr. Mead in hopes for a cure. We see the whole Comedia dell'Arte cast of characters in this painting. Harlequin appears twice. On the left, he wears a mask and unsuccessfully tries to get the attention of Mezzetino and a young woman who are too involved with each other to notice. Another Harlequin appears on the right introducing us to Pierrot who dominates the center of the painting. Pierrot plays the role of stand-in for the artist. He looks a little ill, though he is not quite so alone or lonely as in the more famous picture. The people in the picture may be friends of the artist rather than actors. Some critics see in the progression from small children on the left to the old Dottore on the right, a kind of allegory of the stages of life. Perhaps. Watteau knew he was dying when he made this painting. This was one of his last pictures, left unfinished at the time of his death. Another artist completed the architectural setting in the background.
Some critics even now complain that Watteau's approach to love is perhaps too cerebral, that his paintings don't have enough real or implied sexuality. Watteau could paint female flesh with even more relish than he gives to light falling on silk fabric. He takes his cues from Rubens' acres of enticing golden female flesh. Rubens' nude peasant princesses seem a little over-bearing and vulgar compared to Watteau's girls.
Antoine Watteau, Jupiter and Antiope
Watteau, Jupiter and Antiope, detail
We can see his gifts not only in his rapid flickering brushwork that is always so sure, but in his equally sure drawing hand. He uses a three color chalk method pioneered by Rubens, a great drawing technique for any artist like Rubens or Watteau who thinks primarily in terms of color.
Watteau, study from life for a now destroyed painting of Cupid and Psyche
One of Watteau's amazing sheets of drawings of heads;
several portraits of the same girl, and 2 portraits of a boy
A remarkable drawing by Watteau of a seated woman showing
his graphic equivalent for the shimmer of striped silk
Watteau's last, and arguably his greatest, work began on his own initiative. He was already very ill and offered to paint a shop sign for his friend the art dealer Edme Francois Gersaint. He said that he needed to exercise his "cold fingers."
Antoine Watteau, Gersaint's Shop Sign
This painting is famously known as Gersaint's Shop Sign, but it was not a sign board in the usual sense. It is painted on canvas, and was originally arch shaped. You can see a ghost of that original arch shape in the stonework next to the head of the figure on the far left. A later artist added the top portion of the painting. It originally filled the arch above Gersaint's shop and was meant to advertise the place. Gersaint's shop was definitely not the expansive store that we see in Watteau's picture. It was tiny, barely a booth on the Pont Notre Dame. Gersaint's shop was similar to the jewelry shops in Florence on the Ponte Vecchio, only smaller. The painting lasted only 15 days in its intended location, and advertised Watteau even more than Gersaint's shop. The painting attracted crowds of admirers including many artists, and eventually a buyer. The painting was modified repeatedly after Watteau's death. It was transformed from an arch into a quadrilateral shape, and then cut in two pieces down the middle. All of these changes happened before the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, bought the picture in 1748.
In this painting, Watteau leaves behind the wandering actors in the woods, and their young followers from Paris, and returns to the solid respectable world of the urban bourgeoisie, and very slyly shows them in the throes of barely repressed passion. The passing of time forms an undercurrent in this painting as it does in all of Watteau's work, but here with more wit and sympathy than in his previous works.
The painting today is literally cut in two, but Watteau intended us to see it as a sequence between halves divided by the perspective of the shop.
On the left half, we see a gentleman offer his hand to assist a beautiful and beautifully dressed woman entering the shop from the street. We see her from the back dressed in luminous rose silk never painted more brilliantly than here, a cascade of luminous folds. As she steps into the shop, the hem of her dress reveals a slight surprising glimpse of her blue-green stocking. She looks to her left to see a shop employee packing up a painting of King Louis XIV, a reference to his death 5 years before and to the passing of an era; from the gloomy piety of Louis' final days to the relieved hedonism of the Regency. Another shop employee prepares to pack a mirror on top of the painting. Behind the lady and the gentleman are paintings of nudes, perhaps the loves of Jupiter, a sly revelation of what truly transpires between these 2 respectable young people.
In so much of Watteau's work, music is the food of love, but here art takes on that role in the right hand part of Gersaint's shop sign.
On the left, an elderly couple with their backs to us enthusiastically study an oval shaped painting of nudes in the woods, perhaps Diana with her virgins bathing, or more likely the nymphs of the forest having fun. Watteau cleverly suggests that this elderly couple is animated by the happy memories of past pleasures suggested by the painting. To the right is a gathering of young people and the suggestions of hoped for pleasures and anticipated futures. In another glorious display of painterly fireworks, Watteau paints another shining cascade of silk on a lovely young woman as she leans back to share the view in a small table mirror displayed by a shop girl. Two young gentlemen appear to be looking at the mirror, but are more likely looking at the young lady, who is probably using the mirror to study them. The shop girl is herself an object of attention. The top tier of paintings on the wall behind the group show more nudes in passionate love scenes. Watteau again slyly reveals what the young lady and 2 young gentlemen hope for. The painting between the shop girl showing the mirror and the young gentlemen shows the Holy Family, perhaps suggesting what the the attractive shop girl really hopes for.
I've always loved Watteau's work for its magical subtlety of technique and especially for its rich complexity of feeling. People have long told me that I have a fine painting technique, but mine looks so ham-handed compared to Watteau (I'm not being modest, only candid). I could never match that sure hand and that light touch if I lived to be a thousand. I've painted some expressive faces in my day, but nothing anywhere close to the complexity of Gilles or the Shop Sign.
I am happy to say that I am not the only artist enchanted by Watteau's work. He had a big influence on English painters. He decisively influenced Gainsborough. Joshua Reynolds, of all people, loved Watteau's work. Another surprising fan of Watteau was the great Romantic painter Turner. In the 20th century, sour old Lucian Freud was a big fan, and painted an homage to Watteau.
A couple of other favorite paintings of mine:
Antoine Watteau, The Music Party (Les Charmes de Vie), This beautiful painting shows a group of people making music and creating a small domain of affection among themselves. A young musician playing a large lute dominates the center, his shape silhouetted against the distance and the sky. The columns on the left echo his casual pose, stepping up on a stool to create a support for his instrument. The people in this painting may not be lovers so much as friends. Small children play with dogs. Another dog very inelegantly licks himself on the right, a little quotidian touch recalling Watteau's experiences with Dutch painting (this same dog appears in the lower right corner of Gersaint's Shop Sign). One young woman tries with mixed success to engage the children in song. In the shadows, a young man tries to distract another young woman who is trying to listen. Watteau's friend and fellow Flemish painter Nicolas Vleughels appears standing to the far left.
Far from decadent, Watteau's paintings are small refuges of human warmth in our age dominated by bloodthirsty fanatics, angry domineering ideologues, and cold calculating nihilists. In our world of warring abstractions, Watteau reminds us of what it is like to be human and what a pleasure it is to be alive and to enjoy the company of those we love.
Rosalba Carriera, Portrait of Antoine Watteau