Watteau, Antoine (Born Jean-Antoine; 1689–1721)

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WATTEAU, ANTOINE (born Jean-Antoine; 16891721)

WATTEAU, ANTOINE (born Jean-Antoine; 16891721), French painter. Antoine Watteau was born in Valenciennes in northern France in humble circumstances. By the end of his short life (he died at 32 of tuberculosis), he was a celebrated painter in Paris. Today, he is generally considered to be the father of the rococo style because he developed the fête galante, 'gallant party', as a subject; it became a hallmark of the era's painting. Watteau's work in particular, and the rococo style in general, reflect a major transformation of the French art world. At the beginning of Watteau's lifetime, King Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) controlled the production of culture through the establishment of academies and state-supported patronage of the arts. By the time of his death, patronage of the arts had shifted to private individuals who were no longer interested in the highly didactic and often propagandistic art demanded by royal patronage. Although Watteau was a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, it was a group of private collectors who collected his work and cultivated his reputation.

The fêtes galantes were contemporary scenes of elegant men and women, usually in an outdoor setting and sometimes dressed in masquerade, engaged in conversation, flirtation, music making, and dancing. Watteau's fêtes galantes were intimate in scale; the pictures were the appropriate size to be enjoyed in a private space, rather than the monumental paintings of subjects taken from classical mythology and history that decorated the public spaces of Louis XIV's palaces. The fêtes galantes mirrored the kinds of social activities enjoyed by Watteau's elite collectors and also reinforced their image of themselves.

The appearance of some figures dressed in theatrical costumes and others in contemporary everyday garb is another trait of Watteau's fêtes galantes. Watteau absorbed the theatrical milieu under the tutelage of his first teacher in Paris, Claude Gillot (16731722), who illustrated theatrical troupes. Claude Audran (16581734), who did decorative painting in the homes of Parisian high society, taught Watteau his highly ornamental style and introduced him to his future patrons. Watteau himself later had two students, Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Pater, who also specialized in fêtes galantes.

Perhaps Watteau's most famous fête galante is Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717, Louvre). The painting represents a lighthearted topic that was popular in theatrical and musical performancea pilgrimage to Venus's Island of Cythera, where everyone would fall in love. In Watteau's painting, a statue of Venus indicates the pilgrims are on the island of Cythera. Three couples are arranged on a hillock and this can be read as a narrative of departure. The couple closest to the statue is most fully under Venus's spell of love; the next couple to the left is getting up, emerging from the spell of love; and the third couple is already standing. The woman glances back, as if wistfully remembering the spell of love already gone. On the other side of the hillock, a group of people heads toward a boat. Their pilgrimage is over and they will return to the real world. Watteau's fêtes galantes have often been characterized as melancholy, containing a subtext that alludes to the passing of love and of life.

The passing of the era of King Louis XIV is represented in another of his celebrated works, The Signboard of Gersaint (1721, Staatliche Museum, Berlin). This work shows the interior of the shop of Watteau's friend, the art dealer Edmé Gersaint. On the left side, workmen pack away a portrait of Louis XIV, and the walls are covered with paintings representative of an older style associated with his reign. On the right side, elegantly dressed customers admire paintings representative of the new, or rococo, style preferred by elite private patrons. This painting also celebrates the collection and enjoyment of art, which had become part of the social rituals enacted among the elite.

Watteau's paintings are often very witty. In The Signboard of Gersaint, the painting of Louis XIV being stored not only represents the passing of an era, but is also a visual pun, referring to the name of Gersaint's shop, "The Grand Monarch." In Pilgrimage to Cythera, the cherubs who flutter above the ship cavort erotically, perhaps acting out what the more decorous pilgrims below are thinking about. Wittiness, whether in art or in conversation, was a trait much esteemed in eighteenth-century high society.

Today, as in the eighteenth century, Watteau's works are highly prized. He managed to combine superb draftsmanship with deft painting to subtly represent facets of both the complex social life and the attitudes of those who came to dominate early modern European society.

See also France, Art in ; Louis XIV (France) ; Rococo .


Grasselli, Margaret, and Pierre Rosenberg, with the assistance of Nicole Parmantier. Watteau: 16841721. Washington, D.C., 1984.

Plax, Julie Anne. Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France. New York, 2000.

Posner, Donald. Antoine Watteau. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984.

Vidal, Mary. Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in 17th and 18th Century France. New Haven, 1992.

Julie Anne Plax