Watteau, Antoine

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Watteau, Antoine


(or Jean Antoine Watteau). Christened Oct. 10, 1684, Valenciennes, French Flanders; died July 18, 1721, Nogent-sur-Marne, near Paris. French painter and draftsman. Son of a tiler.

About 1702, Watteau went to Paris; in his youth he worked as a copyist. His friendship with painters C. Gillot and later C. Audran fostered development of Watteau’s interest in the theater and in decorative art. At the Luxembourg Palace, Watteau studied the paintings of P. P. Rubens, whose legacy at the turn of the 18th century promoted the freeing of the French school of art from the dogmas of academicism, which had been planted in the 17th century by C. Le Brun. In 1717, Watteau received the rank of academician for his large painting Embarkation for the Island of Cythera (Louvre, Paris). In 1719-20 he visited England.

Watteau’s creative direction laid the foundation for a new stage in the development of French painting, graphic art, and decorative art. Even in his earliest years, pursuing the characteristic motifs of genre painting of the 17th century, Watteau addressed himself to portraying contemporary life around him (The Bivouac, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Savoyard With Marmot, 1716, Hermitage, Leningrad), which he invested with a special intimacy and lyrical emotion. In his mature period his unique types of subjects emerged, subjects connected by a common content—theatrical scenes and fêtes galantes. Poetic imagination played an important role in Watteau’s creative method; the internal life of his characters is revealed in a special sphere of involvement with a dreamworld, fancifully interwoven with an appeal to the lyrical response of the viewer. Watteau was the first to recreate in art the world of the subtlest spiritual states, often tinged with irony and bitterness born of the perception of the discrepancy between dream and reality. The characters in Watteau’s paintings are constantly repeated types, but behind their gallant performance, under the actor’s mask, is concealed an infinite variety of nuances of poetic feeling. In Watteau’s lyrical scenes, which most often represent groups of figures in the lap of nature, the emotionality of the landscape is consonant with the most subtle gradations of feeling. The groups and individuals of the many-figured scenes develop the general lyrical theme in different variations. The melodiousness and whimsicality of the compositional rhythm is manifested in subtly caught movements and gestures. Richness of emotional nuance is embodied in the refined tenderness of color combinations, the quivering play of color nuances, and the vibrating, changeable strokes.

The flowering of Watteau’s creative work was brief. The following paintings emerged during a period of less than ten years: Venetian Holiday (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Holiday of Love and Fete in a Park (Picture Gallery, Dresden), Joys of Life (Wallace Collection, London), Gilles (Louvre, Paris), Le Mezzetin (Metropolitan Museum, New York), and The Shop Sign of Gersaint (Picture Gallery, Berlin-Dahlem). Watteau did not date his paintings, but they apparently evolved from the comparatively dark palette of the early scenes of military life (c. 1709 and later) to the brightened, golden coloring of Embarkation for the Island of Cythera (1717) and in his last years to greater subtlety of painting, lightness of scumbling, and plastic definition of forms (The Shop Sign of Gersaint, 1720).

Poetic charm also distinguishes Watteau’s drawings, usually executed either in red chalk (sanguine) or in three colors (black chalk, red chalk, and chalk); the drawings testify to his keen observation and profound study of nature. His drawings are memorable descriptions of various types in French society, presented with the subtlest shades of emotion; light strokes and wavy lines reproduce the nuances of plastic forms, movement of light, and impression of the airy medium.

Watteau’s creative work opened new paths to artistic knowledge of contemporary life and to sharpened perception of lyrical moods and the poetry of nature. His work is broader and richer in content than rococo art, which owed much in its development to Watteau’s legacy (especially his ornamental panels).


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iskusstva, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1963.
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Nemilova, I. S. Vatto i ego proizvedeniia v Ermitazhe. Leningrad, 1964.
Adhémar, H. Watteau, sa vie—son oeuvre. Paris, 1950.
Parker, K. T., and J. Mathey. Antoine Watteau: Catalogue complet de son oeuvre dessiné, vols. 1-2. Paris, 1957.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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