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Jean-Antoine Watteau

French Painter

Jean-Antoine Watteau Photo
Movement: The Rococo

Born: October 10, 1684 - Valenciennes, France

Died: July 18, 1721 - Nogent-sur-Marne, France

"In my view, you must either do away with ornament - or make ornament the essence. It's not something you add. It's not icing on a cake. It's everything - or it's nothing."

Summary of Jean-Antoine Watteau

Jean-Antoine Watteau's sensuously painted Rococo idylls conveyed courtly love and ideas of reverie, longing, and utopia at a time of aristocratic indulgence and hedonism. Painting both decorative and fine arts works, Watteau's subjects attracted a wealthy clientele and the newly emerging collecting class, making him quite successful during his lifetime. Watteau's elevation of ornament combined with his subtle compositions, use of color, and playful subjects captures the Rococo era like no other artist.

During and after the French Revolution his paintings fell out of favor. With more egalitarian aspirations, the revolutionaries despised all things associated with the aristocracy, including Watteau's paintings. Increasingly, though, Watteau's reputation has recovered as artists and scholars alike understand better his subtle exploration of the burgeoning modern selfhood and his complex painting techniques.

Key Ideas

Watteau's paintings of elegantly dressed aristocrats flirting in the landscape led the French Royal Academy to create a new genre to accommodate the painter: fête galantes. These pictures of courtship parties were concerned with themes of love, secrecy, playfulness, and wistfulness and combined genre painting with the mythological subjects so popular in history painting of the time.
While Rococo art is known for its frivolity, hedonism, and light-heartedness, Watteau's compositions were indebted to close observation of nature and life, which he initially rendered in countless drawings that later informed his paintings.
Perhaps not so neatly delineated as they are now, both decorative and fine arts were part of Watteau's repertoire. Painting on panels or directly on the wall, Watteau created motifs and vignettes to decorate dining rooms and studies of his patrons, and he created large oil paintings that were accepted by the French Royal Academy. Often, the subject matter of both modes of work coincided in scenes of musicians, lovers, and lush landscapes.
Many of Watteau's most important works have a stage-like setting, with the panoramic scene extending laterally in very shallow space. Such compositional devices can be traced to his love of the theater and ballet. Both opera and the more popular Commedia dell'arte, were favorite subjects of his.
Jean-Antoine Watteau Photo

Jean-Antoine Watteau was a contradictory man; a painter of great love scenes who was apparently celibate, and a moody and unsocial character who was nevertheless surrounded by friends. And following the French Revolution, Watteau’s work was so controversial that legend has it that students threw their erasers at it.

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