Jean-Antoine Watteau

Nation: France

Artist

Birth Date: October 10, 1684
France Jean-Antoine Watteau Artist Cover
I. Birth and Childhood
II. Apprenticeship
III. Career
IV. Death
I. Birth and Childhood
Jean Antoine Watteau was born at Valenciennes, France, on October 10, 1684. He baptized in the Church of St. Jacques on October 19th. His parents — whose names were Jean Philippe Watteau and Michelle Lardenoire — were plain working people. His father followed the calling of a coppersmith — un modeste couvreur, tiler, thatcher, glazier, and plumber. We do not read that the Watteaus had any other children. From the scanty records of his childhood, we gather that Jean Antoine was of a delicate constitution, and that his health was a matter of solicitude to his parents. Much of his time he spent in the open air, or in gazing out of the windows of his father's house, from which he could see the broad, open marketspace.

Schooling appears to have been of secondary importance, although the boy acquired very early a love for music and reading. When no more than five or six years old, he gave evidence of tastes quite in a different direction from that probably desired by his father who looked, doubtlessly, for his boy to follow his own trade. To the annoyance of his parents and of the neighbors, the child began to scrawl in chalk and charcoal all over their doors and doorways. In this there was nothing unusual but one day Monsieur Watteau noticed his son poring over the big family "Vie des Saintes." He called him and asked him what he was doing, and whether he was unhappy. Antoine made no reply, and then his father took up the book, and was astounded by what he saw. The margins of the pages were being covered with illuminations! The drawings, in crayon and in aquarelle, were arabesque designs and grotesque figures — quack doctors, mountebanks, and Italian comedians — impressions gained from what he saw daily from the window. Crudities, too, there were of animals and architectural details from St. Jacques and the Abbey.

Antoine's father was greatly displeased at his son's predilections, and strove hard to divert his attention to other pursuits. It is said however that the schoolmaster to whom the boy was sent quickly noted his pupil's instinct and persuaded his father to let him have lessons in drawing. M. Watteau, who appears to have greatly prospered in his calling, consented somewhat unwillingly, exclaiming, "After all, the position of a painter is as good as any other, at least there is less risk of breaking one's neck by falling off the roof of a house!"

The drawing-master turned out to be a mere charlatan and did his pupil no good. The young Watteau, however, progressed favorably. Inspirations were not lacking. The streets were full of characteristic scenes. The times were warlike, and soldiers and their equipage were to be seen everywhere. Genre pictures of Teniers and other Flemish masters were common enough. The churches of the city and their decorations also had their influence.

Among many designs and drawings preserved at Valenciennes is a sketch done in 1697, when the boy was only thirteen, which has been engraved by L. Jacob. It is inscribed: "Le Depart des Comediens Italiens." It shows an excellent idea of composition and is valuable from an historical point of view. In that year Louis XIV expelled the strolling players from France because they caricatured him and Madame de Maintenon. The Due de Saint Simon, in his Memoires, says: "The King drove away the Parisian Company of Italian Actors, and would not permit another to take its place. So long as the Italians had simply allowed their stage to overflow with more or less indelicate caricatures of the Church and society in general they only caused laughter. When they set about playing a piece called 'La Fause Pruderie,' in which Madame de Maintenon was easily recognized, everybody ran to see it, and the tongue of slander began to wag. After the fourth representation their theatre was closed, and they were ordered to leave the country within a month."

Staley, E. (1907). Birth and early years. In Watteau and his school (pp. 1-3). London: G. Bell and Sons.
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II. Apprenticeship
When Antoine was fourteen, his father showed some of his drawings to Jacques-Albert Gerin, who strongly advised him to encourage his talent. Accordingly, in 1698, young Watteau entered the studio of M. Gerin as a pupil. By the statutes of the Corporation of Artists of Valenciennes, an apprenticeship was for three years but a pupil might, if he wished, prolong the period. A warm friendship sprang up between master and pupil, for Gerin detected not only the lad's earnestness but also his ability. Gerin was a master of technique, which he imparted to his pupil who began again to draw the designs and studies which, until then, had occupied chalky and sooty fingers.

Under his master's guidance, Jean Antoine began a systematic study of the churches in and near Valenciennes. In the Abbey Church of Saint Amand was a great triptych by Rubens, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, with The Saint Preaching and The Burial of the Saint upon the wings. In the Church of Saint Jacques was The Martyrdom of St. Jacques by Van Dyck. In the Abbey Church of Saint Jean was The Circumcision by Martin de Vos, painted 1593, and many more fine pictures. The fascination which these pictures had exercised upon the eye of the child, as he knelt by his mother's side at Mass and Benediction, was further intensified. At this time and under these influences, Watteau executed a great number of drawings and decorative panels.

In 1700 — the second year of his apprenticeship — appeared, with the approval and under the correction of his master, Watteau's first picture. This he named La Vraie Gaiete. It represented a dancing scene at the door of a tavern. It was a distinct imitation of the style of Teniers and Brouwer, but the faces are far less brutish, and the dress much less disordered than is the case in most Flemish pictures of the same category. What is really striking in this early effort is that it exhibits one of the painter's subsequently most marked characteristics — his skill in the folds of the clothes. In the same year M. Gerin died, to Antoine's unspeakable grief, and the young man found himself left to his own devices. His master had spoken to him much about Paris and the picture galleries there and had filled his heart with a longing desire to behold the masterpieces of the great painters. He had urged him to go to the "Gay City," and to study under a master. M. Watteau, however, would not hear of his son leaving Valenciennes, although he never ceased twitting him about the poor financial results of his art.

Lack of means, the restraint of the home, and the derision of his father at length became unbearable. He hurriedly finished some single figures in color, among them La Marmotte, now at St. Petersburg, and La Fileuse, which is lost. Then, early one morning in March 1702, having packed up his kit, Antoine left his home, quite unknown to his parents, and set out upon his trip to Paris. With a few silver coins in his pockets, his paints, his brushes, and a bundle of drawings, Watteau bade adieu to Valenciennes, lingering to take a last gaze at his favorite view of the church towers and the Flemish houses.

Staley, E. (1907). Birth and early years. In Watteau and his school (pp. 4-7). London: G. Bell and Sons.
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III. Career
Watteau came to Paris in 1702 and was employed about the opera house. Being obliged to work for a mere subsistence, he at length became acquainted with Gillot, an eminent designer of grotesques at that time. He imitated him at first, but soon surpassed him with a more correct and natural style of design, and a better tone of coloring. By studying under Audran, and copying from the pictures of Rubens at the Luxemburg palace, he improved himself so much, that he was admitted into the academy and rose into notice. He was indefatigable in his art, and generally chose for his subjects conversations of the comic and pastoral kind, the marches and encampments of armies, landscapes and grotesques, which he finished with a free and flowing pencil, a neat and spirited touch, and a pleasing tone of color. His manner however was entirely that of his country, and if he copied nature, it was in a French dress, and a French epigram upon him turns upon the thought, that Dame Nature, having a coquettish desire of seeing her portrait "paree a la Francoise," produced Watteau for the artist.

Horace Walpole happily parallels him, as a painter, with the novelist Honore D'Urfe as a writer. He writes, "Watteau's shepherdesses, nay, his very sheep, are coquet; yet he avoided the glare and clinquant of his countrymen; and though he fell short of the dignified grace of the Italians, there is an easy air in his figures, and that more familiar species of the graceful which we call genteel. His nymphs are as much below the forbidding majesty of goddesses, as they are above the hoyden awkwardness of country girls. In his halts and marches of armies, the careless slouch of his soldiers still retains the air of a nation that aspires to be agreeable as well as victorious." The writer goes on to remark an unnatural appearance in his trees, which he discovers to have been copied from those of the Thuilleries and villas near Paris, trimmed up by art.

Aikin, J., & Johnston, W. (1815). Watteau, Antony. In General biography; or, lives, critical and historical, of the most eminent persons of all ages, countries, conditions, and professions, arranged according to alphabetical order (Vol. 10, pp. 56-57). London: Printed for J. Johnson, etc.
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IV. Death
Watteau paid a visit to England in 1720, being in a languishing state of health, for which he consulted Dr. Mead. After a residence of a year in London, he returned to Paris, near which capital he died in 1721, at the age of 37. He bequeathed his numerous drawings to four friends, who made a sale of them, which paid his debts, and enabled them to give him an honorable interment. The great industry of Watteau is proved by the number of engravings from his designs, amounting to 563.

Aikin, J., & Johnston, W. (1815). Watteau, Antony. In General biography; or, lives, critical and historical, of the most eminent persons of all ages, countries, conditions, and professions, arranged according to alphabetical order (Vol. 10, p. 57). London: Printed for J. Johnson, etc.
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