Rococo

The Mysterious Master of Rococo: Watteau

Magda Michalska 10 October 2022 min Read

Who was Watteau, one of the most prominent Rococo painters? Not much is known about his life, which makes it and his art all the more mysterious. Are you ready to learn more about the mysterious master of Rococo, Antoine or Jean-Antoine Watteau?

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles), c.1718-19, Paris, Louvre, watteau mysteries rococo
Master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles), ca.1718-1719, 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
Master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Mezzetin, 1718-1720, Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA.

His painterly interests were stirred by Claude Gilot, with whom he collaborated between ca.1705-1708. Gilot was a painter of theatre scenes, including the famous commedia dell’arte. When Watteau began working on his own, he continued to produce paintings with commedia dell’arte characters (for example, Mezzanine was a lovelorn character from the commedia dell’arteand fêtes galantes, which became a popular genre in France

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

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

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-20, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, watteau mysteries rococo
Master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-1720, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, UK.

Although his works may seem light-hearted and silly, they are not as simple as we think. If you look closer, the cheerful scene of a garden party can even assume a sinister atmosphere…

Is the man harassing this young lady?

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-20, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, watteau mysteries rococo
Master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, 1716-1720, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 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
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
Master of Rococo: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717, Louvre, Paris, France. Detail.

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