Jean-Antoine Watteau

Pilgrimage for Cythera, 1720, Oil on Canvas, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

I have a new word processor program, and I am feeling a little unqualified. There are so many bells and whistles I am almost paralyzed by choice. I have gone through so many word processors over the years, from Word Star to Word Perfect to whatever that thing is on Google Docs to this brand new Microsoft product. Very pretty, this is. My words rest, nested in a frame of tranquil blue. And I adjust, burrowing more deeply into the body of the machine, nursing at its fluids. Quiet. Safe. Content?

Harlequin Emperor in the Moon, 1708, Oil on Canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France

In Watteau’s age few people felt any connection to the machine. The early 18th century was wide open for the brash and brave individual. Europe swarmed with strong young men and women to whom the onerous obligations of the Middle Ages were long lost in the mists of history. Leave your life, your family, your God and strike boldly outward to seek your fortune. Some like Watteau were lucky and able to pave the way to a singular life through apprenticeships gained through family influence.  There were steps and stages for the artistic young man that would lead him on to eventual success on his own terms, and if not, if he did not have the basic talent and intellect to press on to greatness he still could work on for his master, copying work and building the foundations of his patron’s oils.

Watteau did not have this kind of time. The machine of his century was far too primitive and chuggish for his circumstances. He had to break away, to jump the system faster, and fortunately in this early age this was easier to do. His health had always been poor. He knew deep inside that he was not destined for long in this world, so he simply set out to create as quickly as he could. Although he made strides and found a measure of acceptance from the art community, he remained relatively unknown outside his little world of painters and paintings.  It would be a very long time before the machine chanced to turn its cold steel eyes on his paintings and offer a reassessment. Today there are those who see the first glimmer of impressionism in his work.

Love in the French Theater, 1716, Oil on Canvas, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin


Love in the Italian Theater, 1716, Oil on Canvas, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

For me, his charm lies in the sly ways he chose to comment on his culture. His heroes are not from society but are the scoundrels and rascals of commedia dell’arte; they are the dashing and hale youths gone to Cythera to celebrate Aphrodite in the lush pelvis of her island; they are the poor who mock the scandal of a noble patriarchy that pretends to Christianity even while auctioning its daughters like cattle to the marriage bed.

The Marriage Contract, 1710 to 1716, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

And as for the august society of artists (There always is one.) who machined up to decide what is good and what is bad in the world of art, well, he had a little something for them, too.

The Monkey Sculptor, 1710, Oil on Canvas, Musée des Beaux-Artes, Orleans, France

Watteau had so little time. He must have sensed after years of ill health that he had but few years, and in fact he died at only thirty-six. He knew that he could not afford to spend even an extra second in the service of another’s dream.  He knew that it was imperative to follow your art. Better to be penniless and on the road, to perform for your wine while thrilled and tingling in the moment’s torchlight than to sit fuming in the dark sucking at some meager beer from the machine.


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3 Responses to Jean-Antoine Watteau

  1. Pat Snyder says:

    I’ve mentioned the Toledo Museum before – it really has a great collection, one of them is 17th and 18th Century France. Not really my favorite collection but they have at least one Watteau – I would venture others, but you make me wonder if I ever really looked at him. Many were so slick and pretty. But they had David etc too.

    • foxpudding says:

      I don’t think Watteau inspired others as David did. Some theorists hold that David was the first true modern artist. I cannot imagine getting to Toledo, but I will certainly check out the museum if I do.

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