The Mysterious Master of Rococo: Antoine Watteau
min Read2 February 2021
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?
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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