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French, 1684 - 1721
Watteau, Jean Antoine
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Benedict Leca, “Antoine Watteau,” NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/constituent/1967 (accessed December 01, 2022).
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|Jan 01, 2009 Version|
Jean Antoine Watteau came from a modest family in the Flemish city of Valenciennes, which had been annexed by France in 1678. He is said to have spent his formative years training under either the religious painter Jacques Albert Gérin (c. 1640–1702) or the sculptor Antoine Joseph Pater (1670–1747), the father of his only pupil,
In 1709 Watteau received second prize in the yearly competition of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture for the Prix de Rome for his submission Abigail Who Brings Food to David (location unknown). Disenchanted by this setback and the conditions of his employment with Audran, Watteau returned to Valenciennes in 1710, having financed his trip home by selling a painting of a departure of troops (probably Return from the Campaign, location unknown) to the dealer Pierre Sirois for 60 livres. As a garrison town, Valenciennes likely provided inspiration for several more distinctive military scenes characterized by an attention to the quotidian aspects of camp life that Watteau made after his return to Paris. Watteau also applied his ineffable draftsmanship to printmaking, producing an album of fashion plate etchings, Figures de modes, from about 1709 to 1713. Such a production reflected Watteau’s awareness of and reliance on the prevailing tastes of elite private clients, a class of patrons epitomized by Pierre Crozat (1665–1740), the immensely wealthy banker to the French monarch. Crozat soon became Watteau’s most important and devoted patron. Watteau lived for a time in Crozat’s Parisian hôtel particulier, where he not only painted a set of important decorations of the seasons, including
In spite of a production largely outside the mainstream of academic art, Watteau remained within the orbit of the Académie. In 1712 he was approved (agréé) by the Académie, owing to the favorable evaluation given to his picture Les Jaloux. This painting, known only through an engraving, depicted commedia dell’arte figures commingling in a forest clearing, a fusion of landscape and costumed characters that exemplified Watteau’s hybrid pictorial style. The peculiarity of Watteau’s productions in turn led the Académie to break long-established tradition by allowing the artist to choose the subject of his morceau de reception, the painting required for full admittance to the Académie. Five years elapsed before Watteau submitted as his reception piece, on August 28, 1717, the famous Pélerinage à Cythère (Pilgrimage to Cythera, Paris, Musée du Louvre). Though Watteau was received into the Académie as a full member—that is, as a history painter—the title of his reception piece was struck out in the Académie’s minutes and replaced with the words “une feste galante.” After Watteau’s death, the descriptor fête galante would come to describe an entirely new genre, one that Watteau is credited with pioneering and perfecting over the course of his short career. As depictions of elegant figures in park settings engaged in amorous interaction, fêtes galantes harnessed an array of artistic precedents and contemporary cultural tendencies: garden scenes with figures by earlier masters such as
Despite the success of Pilgrimage to Cythera, Watteau soon distanced himself from the Académie, finding his patrons among a small circle of private admirers rather than in the official world of the state and the church. It may have been to seek further commercial success that in 1720 Watteau traveled to London, where he hoped to find another audience for his talents. By this time he was suffering from what is believed to have been tuberculosis, and it is possible that he also intended to consult with the infectious disease specialist Dr. Richard Mead, for whom he painted several important pictures, including
This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 465.
Original text by Benedict Leca. Revised by Aaron Wile.
July 25, 2022