Jean-Antoine Watteau, commonly known as Antoine Watteau, a French painter in the style dubbed Rococo, was baptized on this date in 1684. His birth date is unknown. Watteau is credited with inventing the genre of fêtes galantes, scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with a theatrical air. Some of his best known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian commedia dell’arte and ballet.
Watteau was born in October 1684 in the town of Valenciennes which had recently passed from the Spanish Netherlands to France. Watteau may have been apprenticed to Jacques-Albert Gérin, a local painter.His first artistic subjects were charlatans selling quack remedies on the streets of Valenciennes. He left for Paris in 1702. And there he found employment in a workshop at Pont Notre-Dame, making copies of popular genre paintings in the Flemish and Dutch tradition. It was in that period that he developed his characteristic sketchlike technique.
By 1705 he was employed as an assistant by the painter Claude Gillot, whose work represented a reaction against the turgid official art of Louis XIV’s reign. In Gillot’s studio Watteau became acquainted with the characters of the commedia dell’arte, a favorite subject of Gillot’s that would become one of Watteau’s lifelong passions. Afterward he moved to the workshop of Claude Audran III, an interior decorator, under whose influence he began to make drawings admired for their elegance. In fact, throughout Watteau’s lifetime, his drawings were much more popular than his paintings. Audran was the curator of the Palais du Luxembourg, where Watteau was able to see the magnificent series of canvases painted by Peter Paul Rubens for Queen Marie de Medici. Rubens would become one of his major influences, together with the Venetian masters he later studied in the collection of his patron and friend, the banker Pierre Crozat.
In 1709 Watteau tried to obtain the Prix de Rome and was rejected by the Academy. In 1712 he tried again and by then was considered so good that, rather than receiving the one-year stay in Rome for which he had applied, he was accepted as a full member of the Academy. He took five years to deliver the required “reception piece”, but it was one of his masterpieces: the Pilgrimage to Cythera, also called the Embarkation for Cythera.
Watteau lacked aristocratic patrons; his buyers were bourgeois bankers and dealers. Among his most famous paintings, beside the two versions of the Pilgrimage to Cythera, one in the Louvre, the other in the Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, are Pierrot (long identified as “Gilles”), Fêtes venitiennes, Love in the Italian Theater, Love in the French Theater, “Voulez-vous triompher des belles?” and Mezzetin. The subject of his hallmark painting, Pierrot (Gilles), is an actor in a white satin costume who stands isolated from his four companions, staring ahead with an enigmatic expression on his face.
Watteau’s final masterpiece, the Shop-sign of Gersaint, changes his usual pastoral forest locale for a mundane urban setting at an art dealer’s.
Watteau alarmed his friends by a carelessness about his future and financial security, as if foreseeing he would not live for long. In fact he had been sickly and physically fragile since childhood. In 1720, he traveled to London to consult Dr. Richard Mead, one of the most fashionable physicians of his time and an admirer of Watteau’s work. However, London’s damp and smoky air offset any benefits of Dr. Mead’s wholesome food and medicines. Watteau returned to France and spent his last few months on the estate of his patron, Abbé Haranger, where he died in 1721, perhaps from tubercular laryngitis, at the age of 36. The Abbé said Watteau was semi-conscious and mute during his final days, clutching a paint brush and painting imaginary paintings in the air.
His nephew, Louis Joseph Watteau, son of Antoine’s brother Noël Joseph Watteau (1689–1756), and grand nephew, François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, son of Louis, followed him into painting as a career. Here’s my customary gallery. Watteau is not a fav of mine, so this is more for completeness than interest:
Valenciennes, Watteau’s birthplace, is noted for its fish dishes and sole Valenciennes is a standard of chefs worldwide.
Fillets of Sole Valenciennes
salt and pepper
¼ tsp ground mace
¼ tsp dried thyme
6 sole fillets
½ cup dry vermouth
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp melted butter, plus extra
1 tbsp chopped chives
2 tbsp minced onion
30 small mushroom caps
chopped fresh parsley
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Combine the mace and thyme with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and sprinkle the mixture on both sides of the fillets. Place the fish in a buttered skillet with a lid.
Combine the vermouth, lemon juice and butter and pour over the fish. Sprinkle with the chives and onion. Place the mushrooms on and around the fish. Cover the pan and very slowly bring it to a boil over low heat. Immediately uncover the pan and place it in the oven. Bake, basting often with the wine-butter mixture, for fifteen minutes.
Place the fish on a heated serving plate and pour over the cooking liquid and mushrooms. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.