Jean-Antoine Watteau

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Jean-Antoine Watteau

Pierrot and Other Clowns


Comedy and melancholy

(K.Reichold, B.Graf)

Get your apparel together, good strings to your beards, new ribbons to your pumps; meet presently at the palace; every man look o'er his part.... In any case, let Thisby have clean linen; and let not him that plays the lion pare his nails, for they shall hang out for the lion's claws. And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath, and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy...

William Shakespeare, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene II, 36-46, 1600

Jean-Antome Watteau
Gilles and Four Other Characters from the Com media dell'Arte (Pierrot)
Oil on canvas
184 x 149 cm
Musee du Louvre, Pans

In the eighteenth century, members of the French Court amused themselves splendidly: "The day before yesterday there was a great masque in Versailles". Thus a letter written in 1700: "The Duchess of Burgundy, in the guise of a village bride, came with her retinue of ladies in waiting, who were all masked, as she was, and whose hair was adorned with many flowers. This made a gloriously cheerful effect---- Eight days before there was another pretty harlequinade at Marly. The loveliest were the Savoyardes with their pedlar's bundles on their backs, which they opened. Two little harlequins and two Columbines popped out, little girls and boys, who danced beautifully." Even King Louis XV, then only eleven years old, took part in fetes galantes, elegant entertainments, in 1721. He mimed a ballet dancer in a ballet entitled The Elements.
Not only did the nobility love dressing up and playing theatre. Like many of his contemporaries, painter Jean-Antome Watteau did, too. He was particularly taken with the characters in Italian improvised comedy, commedia dell'arte. They brought welcome diversion and pleasure to the poor as well. Commedia dell'arte originated around 1550 in Lombardy, evolving as street theatre in which improvised pieces based on stock situations were performed by troupes of specially trained actors. All that was prearranged were synopses of the plot and the sequence of scenes. Consisting mainly of clowning and jokes, the dialogue was entirely improvised. Although a couple in love belonged to the stock repertoire, the other characters were burlesque types, instantly recognisable because they always appeared in the same masks and costumes: Pantalone — an elderly Venetian merchant, the doctor, a scholar of Bologna and Arlecchino, and his crafty man-servant, whose awkward and melancholy side soon became personified as a separate character called Pedrolmo.
After commedia dell'arte had become established in France at courts, fairs and in the streets, Pedrolino changed into a pitiable fool, who might be called either Pierrot or Gilles. This character represented the rejected lover, who was always sad. He was characterised by a distinctive white, wide-sleeved costume, a white mask and a wide white beret. Did Watteau paint his Gilles as a portrait of an actor famous for playing the part of Gilles or Pierrot? Was this life-sized painting possibly hung in front of a cafe, or theatre in which the actor in question may have appeared in the role? Be that as it may, the melancholy clown, mocked, ridiculed and despised for his asinine helplessness, was a favourite with Watteau for the sole reason that he was so wretchedly sad. The mournful clown appears several times in his work. Is this a biographical clue? The painter knew all too well what it was like to have only himself for company. His final years were marred by disease and melancholy before he died at thirty-seven of tuberculosis.

The Anxious Lover
Oil on canvas
Palacio Real, Madrid

The Music Lesson
Oil on panel
The Wallace Collection, London

The Music-Party, c. 1718

Cultivated leisure, music and champagne

(Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen)

Les Charmes de la Vie (The Music Party)

A small company of friends gathers to make music on a parkland terrace. Between dogs and children at play a pleasant conversation unfolds while instruments are tuned. The park in the background is an invitation to stroll. The scene, painted c. 1718, shows Antoine Watteau's rendering of one of the more popular "innocent pleasures" of the age. Among such pleasures, a contemporary listed the "joys of dining, music and the gaming-table, conversation, reading and walking".
To enhance the "joys of dining", a "Moorish boy" cools champagne, which, patronized by the highest in the land, had lately become a highly fashionable drink. Duke Philip of Orleans was known to drink this sparkling wine in large quantities at his "petits soupers". Philip was Regent, governing France between 1715 and 1723 during the minority of his grand-nephew, the future King Louis XV. During this short era, which coincided with Watteau's most productive period, the Duke brought change not only to the worlds of fashion and taste, but to politics as well.
In the twenty years prior to his death, Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, had kept France almost constantly at war. The Regent, by contrast, signed peace treaties, paid off crushing state debts and encouraged industry and commerce. While 20 million French breathed a sigh of relief, no longer victim to the worst deprivation -1709 had been a year of starvation in Paris - a small, privileged minority scented the chance to live life to the full. And they grasped it with both hands.
Under Louis XIV, political expediency and religious orthodoxy had been felt as crushing burdens, stifling all individuality. The ideals of a French "classical epoch", promulgated in church by Bishop Bossuet and on stage by the poets Racine and Corneille, were discipline and self-denial, the sacrifice of self-fulfilment to the higher principle of public order and well-being. The affected piety of an ageing king had made matters worse. All in all, it was hardly surprising that France slaked its thirst for pleasure and luxury the moment the king died.
Christianity and stoicism were set aside for more worldy philosphies. In the tradition of the Epicureans, the "Regence" devoted itself to the ideal of sensual delight: "the art of sensual refinement, heightened by feelings of virtue", according to Remond de St. Mard's definition in the Parisian magazine Mercure in 1719. The son of a wealthy financier, Remond de St. Mard was one of the few privileged enough to devote themselves to the pursuit of this art. The "hedonists" went further, demanding a right to individual happiness, which the Encyclopaedists of the second half of the 18th century described as "a contemplative state, bejewelled here and there with the brighter tones of pleasure". Happiness and sensual pleasure are also the subject of Watteau's painting, which, measuring 69 x 93 cm, is now in the possession of the Wallace Collection, London.


Townsfolk in the country

The Music Party (detail)

The small chateau on whose terrace the musicians have gathered belonged to a wealthy banker. It was called Montmorency and had a vestibule, or roofed, columned forecourt, with a panoramic prospect of the surrounding park and countryside. Its owner, Pierre Crozat (1665-1740), nicknamed ironically "the pauper", was one of the richest men in France. He used his wealth to collect Old Masters and support young artists. In 1718 Watteau lived at Crozat's palatial home in Pans. He undoubtedly made frequent visits to Montmorency and was able to observe and paint the life of the townsfolk at their country retreat.
Though for many centuries a privilege of the aristocracy, ownership of large areas of land now began to appeal to members of the ascendant bourgeoisie. The privileges of the latter did not accrue to them by birth, but were won through business acumen and the pursuit of profit. Developments, set in motion under the Sun King, had accelerated during the regency. Paradoxically, country life had became fashionable just as Paris started to enjoy a boom. In 1715, accompanied by the nobility and royal household, the Regent, who hated Versailles, had returned to Paris. "All the French love Pans more than anything", noted his mother, the German Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, although it was, in her opinion, "a dreadful place. It stinks ... People just piss on the street; it's intolerable." Whoever could afford it therefore had good reason to flee to the country - although few strayed far, for it was important to remain within easy reach of the centre. Montmorency was situated some 15 miles from Paris, and Crozat's coaches took only two hours to transport the banker and his guests to its theatres and salons.
Though the townsfolk were undoubtedly drawn to the clean air and the pleasant countryside, they also sought the ease and unbuttoned informality of a new philosophy of life. Far from codes of behaviour which constrained life in every class of society, far from the strictures of etiquette and obsession with external appearances which dominated their own class, they were able to converse with their friends from morning until night, reclining on the mead with them if they so wished, or strolling in the park. Walking no longer meant the stiffness of a promenade "a la Roi Soleil" in the garden at Versailles, between geometrically arranged flower-beds and closely-eropped box-hedges. Nature was gradually unshackled. In Watteau's day and age, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the most popular Pans park, was said to be "crude and unkempt", with the trees' skyward growth and uncut hedges' spread unhindered.
The demand that a "garden should owe more to Nature than to art" was entirely new ("The Theory and Practice of Gardening", Paris, 1707). This was the era of the English landscape garden, with its lawns, copses and hillocks, a style possibly seen by Watteau at one of the properties owned by his rich, anglophile patron. For it was in this type of landscape - natural scenery, undoubtedly "unkempt" by contemporary standards, but nevertheless pleasant, and constructed solely for human enjoyment - that he chose to situate his amorous couples and musicking friends.
It was Watteau's landscape painting, more than anything else, which found the admiration of his contemporaries. These paintings captured all that was modern about the era in which he lived: its new relationship to Nature, the new ideal in landscape. An anonymous portrait of the artist as a young man contains an admiring text declaring that Watteau was always si nouveau: so new.


A difficult instrument to play

The Music Party (detail)

In his Life of Antoine Watteau, Painter of Figures and Landscapes, published in 1748, Count du Caylus, describing his deceased friend, writes: "He may have received little or no education, but he had a finely attuned ear and a highly discnminating taste in music." Watteau painted his musical instruments with such precision that experts can even identify their manufacturers.
At the centre of his Music-Party Watteau painted a theorbo. This lute was so difficult to tune and play that it was neglected almost to the point of extinction even in Watteau's day. Amateur players could hope to learn little more than the easiest of accompaniments and simplest of tunes. In professional music it had long been used to supply the basso continuo, or thorough-bass. However, the last composition for the theorbo was published in Paris in 1716, and by 1732, "no more than three or four venerable old gentlemen" could play the instrument. New instruments, such as the violoncello and harpsichord, were imported from Italy. The thorough-bass passed to the cello, and to the harpsichord. Though Watteau is said to have decorated the latter instrument, it did not appear in any of his paintings; it would not have been played at one of his outdoor concerts anyway.
Many of his works show musicians, thus reflecting one of the favourite pastimes of the era: "They are all learning to play music", wrote Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, "it's the latest rage, followed by all young people of quality, whether male or female."
What did they play? Music by the Italian composers Albinoni, Stradella and Scarlatti - works demanding smaller, more intimate ensembles - predominated in the music library of Watteau's patron, Pierre Crozat. Together with church music and opera, chamber music, a new form, enjoyed increasing popularity among progessive, or "modern", circles in Paris. "Sonatas and cantatas", wrote the Mercure in 1713, "are spreading like mushrooms". Watteau's choice of instruments - theorbo, guitar and violoncello, to which a voice would be added - suggests that the musicians gathered on the terrace were preparing a cantata.
Once a month, a mixed society would meet to listen to chamber music at the salon of the wealthy bourgeois Crozat. The Venetian painter, Rosalba Camera, visiting Paris at the time, gave an account of one such concert. The Regent appeared in person - for not only were the Crozat brothers' services useful to him for various credit transactions, but, like his hosts, he loved Italian music, and indeed is said to have composed an opera himself. The painter Watteau was also present, back from several months in England. Famous soloists, like the Italian castrato Antonio Paccini, performed alongside amateurs -the niece of the painter La Fosse taking a voice part, the papal imernuncio plucking the theorbo.
Watteau's painting probably shows a group of amateurs. Making music was also a favourite pastime for those who chose to sojourn in the country, for country life "is made for love", while "music" itself, so it was said, was "the agent of love". Music served as a pretext for advances, and music gave expression to things one had not yet found the opportunity, or courage, to express.
The group appears to be waiting for the theorbist to tune his instrument - a long and complicated business. It is possible that the artist intended an erotic innuendo: to Watteau's contemporaries, versed in the erotic symbolism of their time, the instrument would have suggested an allusion to the female body, played by her lover's hands. A chateau in the country provided its guests not only with terraces, salons and dining-rooms, but discreet alcoves.

Luxury goods from the colonies

The Music Party (detail)

To have a "Moorish" boy, dressed all in silks and velvets, was one of the more luxurious fashions of the 18th century. He might be seen holding the train of a duchess, or cooling a banker's bottles, and always, he invited onlookers to ponder on the great wide world, and on the riches of the French colonies. Among these were Guadaloupe and Martinique in the Antilles, whose rising importance in economic terms brought fat profits to merchants and shipowners like the Crozats. They bought black slaves in Africa and exchanged them for exotic goods in the Antilles, where the slaves were exploited in the sugar plantations. A royal edict of 1716 accorded to "all merchants of the realm" the right "to trade freely with negroes". An attractive "Moorish boy" was a "colonial luxury" as coveted as the chocolate which he served his mistress at bedtime. Because - so the rumour went - the Marquise de Coetlogon had drunk too much of this dangerous new beverage during pregnancy, she gave birth to a son "as black as the devil".
Trade with new luxury goods such as sugar, coffee, tabacco, tea and chocolate was encouraged by the highest authority in the land, partly for economic reasons, partly also because the Regent had developed a taste for luxury goods himself, a taste that extended to the sparkling wine which vintners in Champagne had recently begun to produce by secondary fermentation. "The wine from Rheims is at its best drunk chilled with ice", according to one contemporary source. "That prickling sensation which tickles the nose and can raise the dead to life" helped the Regent back on his feet for an evening's entertainment after working a twelve-hour day. He liked even to add champagne to the sauces he prepared for his friends. He wanted his dishes to taste simple and yet highly refined. It was an era that witnessed the birth of what is generally referred to as "French cuisine". Whoever could afford to do so ate-judged by today's standards - enormous quantities, whether of the traditional fare or the latest culinary inventions. The richest gorged themselves regularly at the most astounding orgies of drunkenness and gluttony. The Regent himself would drink six or seven bottles of champagne every evening. His mother, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, writing in 1719, commented: "The great fashion in Paris is presently for ladies and men in equal part to drink overmuch and engage in all sorts of ignoble and disorderly activities."
There is no mention here of those "innocent pleasures" whose enjoyment with "refinement" and "feelings of virtue" the Mercure of that year had encouraged. Elizabeth Charlotte compares Paris to Sodom and Gomorrah, and indeed, the excesses of the French upper classes were to have dire consequences during the Revolution of 1789, when the people gave short shrift to the privileged strata. "Luxury and over-refinement in a state", warned the 17th century Due de La Rochefoucauld, "are a sure sign of its decadence, for individuals can only serve themselves to such an extreme by neglecting the common weal."


A painter of the avant-garde

The Music Party (detail)

Watteau's figures are never seen eating; his paintings rarely show filled champagne glasses or bottles. He portrayed reality only to the extent that it corresponded to the ideals of his age. He painted cultivated ladies and gentlemen who were beyond the slightest suspicion of excess participating in so-called fetes galantes, a thematic innovation which, in 1717, having rapidly gained recognition as a new genre, won him a place in the Academy. Watteau, finally successful after the hard years of his early career, now lived in a world of luxury, far from that of his upbringing. He had been born in 1684 at Valenciennes, the son of a master tiler.
In late 1717, Watteau stayed at the Parisian palace of the banker Crozat; a year later he was sharing living quarters with the painter Nicolas Vleughels, who, like Watteau, hailed from the north of France. Unlike Watteau, however, Vleughels had already travelled to Italy; he was later appointed Director of the French Academy at Rome. Watteau shows him biding his time, leaning against a column in his red coat and beret, a costume his spectators would have thought old-fahioned even in those days. Watteau is said to have owned a collection of theatrical costumes in which he dressed his models. The silk suit and white ruff were articles in regular use at the Italian theatre - but it is hard to imagine the papal internuncio who played the theorbo at Crozat's house-concerts allowing himself to be seen in such a "get-up".
Besides other artists, Watteau's acquaintances included the journalist Antoine de La Roque, who took over editorship of Mercure in 1724, Count du Caylus, who painted nudes with him and later wrote his obituary, as well as art dealers and the wealthy collectors of the bourgeoisie. Among the latter was the glass dealer Sirois, the first to buy a painting by Watteau, and the paint manufacturer Glucq, who is known to have owned The Music-Party in 1720.
Crozat himself does not seem to have owned paintings by Watteau, although he had his dining room decorated by the artist. "Of all our artists", he wrote to Rosalba Camera in 1716, "I consider solely M. Vateau capable of creating something that you would value." Crozat gave the painter the freedom of his house, offering him every opportunity to study his art collection and become acquainted with the revels of the upper class - those "joys of dining, music and the gaming-table, conversation, reading and walking".
To what extent did Watteau himself partake in such revelling? Was he capable of excess? He is said to have worked constantly, his sketch-book always to hand, and while certainly knowledgeable in matters musical and an avid reader, it is difficult to imagine him engaged in flirtatious conversation. According to his biographers, he was "timid" and "melancholic" by nature, always "dissatisfied with himself, and with everyone around him", too restless to stay anywhere for very long, whether with Crozat or Vleughels.
Luxury seems to have meant little to Antoine Watteau: to those who exhorted him to count his earnings and get on with his career, he replied that he could live in the poorhouse if the worst came to the worst. In 1717/19, when Watteau was painting his deliciously sensuous Music-Party, he was already a sick man. He had tuberculosis, or possibly paint-poisoning. In 1721, at the age of 36, he died. The image we have of the 18th century is largely determined by paintings Watteau executed in its first two decades. He was "so new" that he anticipated much of what came later. Today he would undoubtedly be referred to as a painter of the avant-garde.


The Italian Serenade
Oil on chestnut panel
National Museum, Stockholm

The Perspective
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Pleasures of Love
Oil on canvas
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden


Diana Bathing
Oil on canvas
Musée du Louvre, Paris


Jupiter and Antiope

Entertainment in the Open Air
Oil on canvas
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin


The Judgement of Paris
Oil on wood, 47 x 31 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris


The Toilette
Oil on canvas
Wallace Collection, London

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