by Roderick Conway Morris

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Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London
The Champs-Elysées by Antoine Watteau, 1720-21

Influential Outsider

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 May 2021


'Watteau is a master I adore,' said Sir Joshua Reynolds, in an uncharacteristic display of unreserved admiration for a near-contemporary artist. Gainsborough was no less enamoured and a host of other artists, art lovers and collectors have continued to fall under Watteau's spell over the three centuries since his untimely death in 1721 at the age of 36.

Thanks to the enduring enthusiasm for Watteau in this country some of his most enchanting works can be seen in British galleries, notably at the Wallace Collection, the National Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London; Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire; and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Antoine Watteau seems to us now to have defined an entire French epoch at the beginning of the 18th century, yet he was a maverick in his own times, a perpetual outsider, an artistic revolutionary, who never received a single commission from either the Court or the Church. His home town of Valenciennes, formerly in the Spanish Netherlands, had been conquered by Louis XIV only a few years before his birth. Even after the artist began to make his mark in Paris, his most loyal patron, Jean de Jullienne, described him as 'a Flemish painter'.

After leaving Valenciennes he never acquired a long-term residence or studio. Utterly devoted to his art, he appears to have been indifferent to domestic comforts and became a serial sofa-surfer, spending the next two decades temporarily lodging with friends.

The son of a roofer with a violent disposition, the boy appears to have been apprenticed to some local artist at a tender age. He escaped to Paris in around 1702 and found a job in a painting workshop that churned out portraits and religious images that were marketed wholesale. Three years later he found a more congenial position painting theatrical scenes with Claude Gillot, who worked with the commedia dell'arte, or Italian Comedians, who had been expelled from their theatre in Paris in 1697 by the King, since their satirical, semi-improvised plays offended the pious sensibilities of his mistress Madame de Maintenon. But the Italian Troupe continued to ply their trade amid the hurly-burly of local fairs and Watteau remained a life-long devotee of their subversive performances.

Soon the artist found further employment with the fashionable ornamental painter Claude Audran, who was sufficiently alert to his young assistant's talents to allow him to compose his own decorative scenes. Audran was also the curator of the Palais de Luxembourg, which gave Watteau access to his fellow-countryman Rubens' monumental cycle of the Life of Marie de' Medici, which became an abiding inspiration.

Despite his fringe status, recognition of his abilities allowed him to compete in 1709 for the Prix de Rome scholarship to study in Italy. When he secured only the second prize, he returned to Valenciennes, where he managed to sell a few small military pictures. Significantly, these were not of battles but of the soldiers at rest in bivouacs, resting, smoking and cooking, and women camp-followers play an unusually prominent role in them. Women were to remain the primary focus of his art ever after.

In 1712 he again tried for the Prix de Rome. He failed, but a painting he exhibited of a commedia dell'arte troupe, not on the stage but in a forest glade, sufficiently intrigued some Academicians to lead to an invitation to apply to the Académie. For this he would have to submit a morceau de réception (reception piece), but exceptionally the subject matter in this case was left entirely up to the artist.

They were to have a long wait, since Watteau did not get round to submitting his 'Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera' until 1717 - by which time he had fully developed the genre of painting that was to win him fame: the fête galante. Yet it only acquired this name when, finding themselves in some perplexity as to which category Watteau's tardy submission belonged, the Académie enrolled the artist as 'a painter of fêtes galantes', thereby implicitly recognizing the new genre and the artist as its inventor.

The origins of Watteau's fêtes galantes - depictions of gatherings of elegantly dressed young men and women amusing themselves and enjoying amorous dalliances in parkland and pastoral settings - stretched back to the Gardens of Love illustrations in medieval manuscripts and Renaissance paintings. They were also popular in the baroque period in the Low Countries - outstanding examples being Rubens' 'The Garden of Love' and his 'Scene Near a Castle'.

Women (and sometimes children) take centre stage in Watteau fêtes galantes - in which an air of theatricality is a key element - and they almost invariably outnumber the men, who are often shown from behind or in shadow. The artist is a master at rendering female beauty, poise and allure, even in these relatively small figures. He revels in beautiful, shimmering dresses (whose pastel colours are often echoed in the sky and surrounding hues in nature) and elegant, closely observed coiffures. In fact, not long before he launched himself on this new path, he worked for a period providing illustrative plates of the latest fashions depicting models against landscape backgrounds.

But Watteau's fêtes galantes also introduced additional elements to the traditional Garden of Love scenes, such as more marked suggestions of elusive narratives in the interactions of the various couples and groups depicted. And he mixes modern fashions with what look like theatrical costumes. In this respect, he captures a contemporary phenomenon of upper-class country house parties for which guests were invited to turn up in fancy dress. Watteau also makes subtle and sometimes playful use of nude classical statuary to add an erotic frisson to the occasion.

The evocation of music and dance, too, not infrequently contributes to the atmosphere of the scenario. Despite his lack of schooling, Watteau's biographers pay tribute to his breadth of culture. As his aristocratic friend the Comte de Caylus recorded, with a degree of amazement: 'although he had received no education, he had a finesse and sensitivity in judging music'.

Nonetheless, the artist is more than happy to send himself up in this context. In 'Venetian Pleasures' (now in Edinburgh), one of his loveliest compositions, he depicts the courtly dance performed by an elegantly poised female figure in a stunning silk dress and his friend Nicolas Vleughels (with whom he lodged in Paris at one point) in exotic oriental costume - and a self-portrait of himself, a peasant interloper at this refined entertainment, incongruously playing the bagpipes, under the sceptical gaze a voluptuous nude marble Venus reclining on the edge of a fountain from which a rippling curtain of shining water cascades.

In 1719, as the consumption he was suffering from worsened, the artist went to London to consult an English doctor, Richard Mead, who was also an art collector. Watteau's first biographer described him as 'always tireless' in his study of nature, and his time in England inspired him to introduce into his fêtes galantes wider vistas of open fields and broad meadows bordered with lines of trees. These are evident in 'The Champs-Elysées, Country Amusements' and 'Rendez-vous de Chasse' (Halt During the Hunt) - all three of which are now in the Wallace Collection. Hunting was for him a new theme and might well have been requested by an English patron.

He returned to Paris in the summer of 1720 and 'to flex his fingers' offered to paint a sign for his art-dealer friend EdmÉ-François Gersaint's gallery on the Pont Notre-Dame, which the artist may well have also considered a good means of making public that he was back in town. The result, executed in just eight days, was 'L'Enseigne de Gersaint' (Gersaint's Shop Sign).

In this witty, illusionistic masterpiece, Watteau depicted the shop with the front wall removed, as though a curtain had been raised to reveal a stage on which a dozen customers and shop assistants play out a series of miniature, beautifully choreographed dramas. He included a female client entering the shop where the door should have been, but now stepping directly from the cobbles of the bridge into the interior space. Vastly exaggerating the size of the real shop, Watteau added a lofty pair of French doors that seemingly lead into a spacious salon behind.

The shop's walls are lined from floor to ceiling with old master paintings, recognizable in their styles but with subjects of Watteau's own invention. He also took the opportunity to amuse any passing connoisseurs by inserting on the far right of the scene a little dog curled up on the cobbles, a detail borrowed from Rubens' 'Wedding of St. Catherine', at the Palais de Luxembourg.

In 1721, as Watteau's health declined, his friends arranged for him to stay in a quiet village, Nogent-sur-Marne, where he continued to paint till the very end. He died in the arms of Gersaint on 18 July of that year.

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023