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The Mysterious Master of Rococo: Antoine Watteau

Jean Antoine Watteau, The French Comedians, 1720, Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA.

Rococo

The Mysterious Master of Rococo: Antoine Watteau

Who was Watteau, one of the most well-known Rococo painters? There are very few documented facts about his life, which make his life and thus his art all the more mysterious. Are you ready for Watteau and the mysteries of Rococo?

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles), c.1718-19, Paris, Louvre, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles), c.1718-19, Louvre, Paris, France.

There is some debate about Watteau’s date of birth (and identity); most believe him to be Jean-Antoine Watteau, born in 1684 and not Antoine Watteau, born in 1676. If we also assume so, we may believe he was born in Valenciennes, which was part of the Spanish Netherlands. The French then conquered this area in 1678.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Mezzetin, 1718-20, New York, Metropolitan Museum, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Mezzetin, 1718-20, Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA.

His painterly interests were stirred by Claude Gilot, with whom he collaborated between c.1705-08. Gilot was a painter of scenes from the theatre, including the famous commedia dell’arte. When Watteu began working on his own, he continued to produce paintings with commedia dell’arte figures ( for example Mezzenin was a lovelorn character from the commedia dell’arte) and fêtes galantes, which become in France a popular genre

Watteau (1684-1721), La Gamme d’Amour (The Love Duet), c.1717, London, National Gallery, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, La Gamme d’Amour (The Love Duet), c.1717, National Gallery, London, England, UK.

Watteau competed for for the Prix de Rome in 1709 and 1712, but was unsuccessful. However, the Académie then accepted him – yet he submitted his ‘morceau de réception’ only in 1717. Watteau died outside Paris in 1721, yet his fame outlived him. For example, many of his works were reproduced in print after his death. He also had followers, such as Watteau’s pupil Jean-Baptiste Pater and Nicolas Lancret.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-20, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-20, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

Although his works may seem light-hearted and silly, they are not so simple as we think. Look here: the cheerful scene of a garden party assumes a sinister atmosphere if we look closely…

Is the man harassing this young lady?

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-20, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-20, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Detail.

We have a similar situation below (look to the right): a dodgy guy seems to be bothering this young lady, or is he just complimenting her beautiful fan?
Moreover, the painting does not specify whether the couples are embarking on the island or departing from it. However, the lovers appear to be leaving the island and making their way down to the ship, which adds an air of nostalgia to the scene. It seems to be a celebration of love, since Cythera, one of the Greek islands, was considered sacred to Aphrodite and love.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717, Paris, Musée du Louvre, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717, Louvre, Paris, France.
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717, Paris, Musée du Louvre, watteau mysteries rococo
The mysterious master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.

Learn more about Jean-Antoine Watteau:

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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