Baroque and Rococo


Baroque and Rococo Art Map

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Jean-Antoine Watteau



French Painting

French painting was largely dependent upon and centred around the Court, which provided the artists with commissions, support, and patronage. It adopted a graceful and voluptuous Rococo style that often coexisted with a concern for realism that was gained through a profound knowledge of the Flemish school. French painters were also influenced by the enduring academic tradition of the Bolognese and Roman schools, which they equated with a particular period in the 17th century, and the work of Nicolas Poussin (1596-1665).
The enchanting paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) set the agenda for the development of art in 18th-century France. The commedia dell'arte and masked performers are a recurring theme in the artist's work, reflecting his early career as a costume designer. The reception of his paintings was so successful that he was soon made a member of the Academy, and he became a specialist in the fetes galantes genre, which depicted figures in pastoral settings. Despite Watteau's sure touch and the frequently ironic and light-hearted nature of his works, there is an undercurrent of melancholy, a sense of the temporal nature of life and of pleasure in his most significant paintings. The idea of the fleeting moment is often the subtext of his pictures; for example, his work Embarkation for Cythera expresses a particularly fragile atmosphere. Of the French school, the work of Francois Boucher (1703-70) typifies the fullest expression of Rococo. A court portrait painter whose career spanned the Regency and continued into Lotuis XV's reign, Boucher captured the spirit of Rococo, and was responsible for propagating the Pompadour style. Respectful of the Roman academic tradition, especially after his stay in Rome. Boucher was also influenced by the Venetian school and, in particular, by Sebastiano Ricci. He was a faithful follower of the Baroque masters, and was known not only for his portraits but also for his landscapes, designs for porcelain, and tapestries, and his stage sets. Boucher represented an aristocratic and worldly approach to painting (he was known for flattering and even seducing his sitters), but the faithfully studied realism that stemmed from Flemish roots was still discernible in his work, as it was in that of his contemporaries. It was clearly evident in the work of Chardin, whose descriptive virtuosity in his portrayals of still lifes and bourgeois domestic scenes made him one of the most admired painters of the mid-18th century. Chardin's pupil, Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), in surprising anticipation of the Impressionist movement, captured the immediacy of his subjects via rapid brushvvork and a rich impasto.




Jean-Antoine Watteau

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born Oct. 10, 1684, Valenciennes, Fr.
died July 18, 1721, Nogent-sur-Marne

French painter who typified the lyrically charming and graceful style of the Rococo. Much of his work reflects the influence of the commedia dell'arte and the opera ballet (e.g., “The French Comedy,” 1716).

Early life and training.

Antoine Watteau was the son of a roof tiler. According to early biographers his childhood was an unhappy one. As a boy he was sensitive and susceptible to quick changes of mood, a voracious reader of novels, and an avid music lover. He showed a penchant for making life studies of mountebanks performing on the public square, and his parents placed him in the workshop of a local painter. At about the age of 18, Watteau decided to go to Paris, where he arrived penniless and apprenticed himself to an old painter, Métayer. Work was scarce, however, so young Watteau moved on to a position in a workshop specializing in votive paintings. Meanwhile, he made countless sketches from life, which were to be a source of thematic inspiration to him for the rest of his life. It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of the art dealers Jean and Pierre-Jean Mariette, in whose shop he admired a precious collection of drawings and engravings, including some by the etcher Jacques Callot. There, in about 1703, he also met his new teacher, Claude Gillot.

Gillot was a decorator of theatrical scenery, with a great talent for painting grotesques, fauns, satyrs, and scènes d'opéra. He detested the grandiose official art of his own time, preferring to work in the style of the 16th-century school of Fontainebleau, with its free feminine grace. Gillot also painted subjects from the Italian commedia dell'arte, whose actors had been expelled from France only a few years before. Gillot's taste for these subjects, as well as some features of his drawing style, are reflected in Watteau's work. He began to observe the theatre from the wings: the makeup, the machines, the settings—all that serves to create scenic illusion. He discovered a new sense of light in the colourful reflections of artificial illumination ondeep shadows, on made-up faces, on the brilliant costumes, and on the painted backdrops. The spectacle being staged was born of the equilibrium established among these elements; natural reality could scarcely have taught the young Watteau more.

In 1708 Watteau entered the studio of Claude Audran III, then curator of the Medici Gallery in the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris. Now his experience of Paris was virtually complete—the world of the theatre, the grand gardens of the Luxembourg, the study of art collections. Watteau's Paris is a combination of ceremonies and illusions, a miracle of civilization that reveals itself in its avenues and fountains, with their marvellous play of water amid the gardens. At the Luxembourg he studied the triumphant cycle of paintings that Rubens had dedicated to Marie de Médicis about 30 years earlier. These huge works, vibrant with life and pleasure, exerted a deep influence upon him. Watteau assisted Audran, who was the most famous decorator in Paris, but he also looked to other worlds. In 1709he was accepted as a student at the Académie Royale of painting and entered the competition for the Prix de Rome, but he failed to win the scholarship to Rome and decided to return to Valenciennes. A friend sold a painting of his so that Watteau could pay for the return journey. He was to paint others at Valenciennes for one of his admirers, a wounded officer in convalescence there. These subjects (“Les Fatigues de la guerre,” “Les Délassements de la guerre”) found favour with the public. In 1710 Watteau returned to Paris as the guest of the art dealer Pierre Sirois, who, together with Sirois's son-in-law Gersaint, was to be his faithful friend for the rest of his life. Watteau introduced members of the Sirois family into his paintings. He was not a portrait painter, however. His subjects do not seem to have names: they are at times friends who masquerade and pose for the groups of Italian actors.

Watteau's Cythera.

In 1712 Watteau tried once more to go to Italy. He did not succeed, but he was accepted by the Académie as a painter of fetes galantes—outdoor entertainments in which the courtiers often dressed in rural costumes—for his presentation of a scene depicting actors in a garden. Between 1710 and 1712 he had painted the first of his three versions of the “L'Embarquement pour l'île de Cythère.” The myth of the island of Cythera, or of love, has distant roots in French and Italian culture, in which the journey is depicted as a difficult quest. Watteau's Cythera, by comparison, is a paradise wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice; it represents an invitation to delights amid the enchantment ofnature. It is an island toward which the pilgrims embark but never arrive, preserving it preserves its light only if it remains far on the horizon.

Watteau's first version of the subject is anecdotal: it illustrates a comedy motif in a vaguely Venetian ambience. The second—which is the most beautiful—has the aspect of aprofane ritual in an unreal, immense, and almost frighteningly empty landscape. In the third, in which cherubim flutter around a golden gondola, the subject has become vulgarized. Common to all three versions is a theatrical, almost scenographic, composition, a chromatic transposition of all that is suggested in the theatrical universe. The wonderlands of opera, romance, and epic are all evoked by Watteau's Cythera, which represents the country of the impossible dream, the revenge of madness on reason, and of freedom on rules and morality. According to one hypothesis, the theme was suggested to Watteau by a prose play, Les Trois Cousines (1700), by Florent Dancourt, in the finale of which a group of country youths, disguised as pilgrims of love, prepare to embark on the voyage to the island of Cythera. Since this story of rustic millers is parodistic in intent and quite different from the refined scene that Watteau set in an unreal Venice, it is more probable that Watteau was inspired by an opéra ballet of Houdar de la Motte, La Vénitienne (1705), in which the invitation to the island of love includes not only the pilgrims of Cythera but also the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte—that is, both of the great themes that Watteau pursued all his life.

Period of his major works.

Despite his growing fame, Watteau remained shy, misanthropic, dissatisfied with himself, “libertine in spirit, but prudent in morals.” There is little information concerning him from 1712 until 1715, when he was introduced to the very rich financier Pierre Crozat, who had just returned from Italy. There, on behalf of the Regent, Crozat had been negotiating for the acquisition of Queen Christina's art collection. A Watteau enthusiast, Crozat invited the painter to take up quarters in his residence, as was the custom among wealthy art lovers. Crozat had a great collection of Italian and Flemish paintings and drawings, including Correggio, the Venetian masters, and Van Dyck, and as Crozat's guest, Watteau profitably applied the lessons of the Italian masters. He also painted the gardens and the country sides surrounding the villa at Montmorency. Watteau left his rich patron out of a desire for freedom, although he remained his friend. Thenceforth he lived in seclusion and solitude. This was the period of the birth of his masterpieces: the “Conversations,” the “Divertissements champêtres,” the “Fêtes galantes.” In 1717 he presented to the Académie, of which he had become a member, the second version of “L'Embarquement pour l'île de Cythère.” Two years later he was in London, where his works were in great demand and where he also wanted to consult a famous physician about his health, which had been failing for some time. In London he limited himself to executing very few paintings, one of which was for his doctor on a subject very dear to him, “Italian Comedians.”

Hardly a year later, in 1720, Watteau was back in France. In only eight days he painted the now-famous signboard for the shop of his art dealer friend Gersaint. Among his last works was “Gilles,” a portrait of a clown in white painted as a signboard for the Théâtre de la Foire. White as innocence (or imbecility) and roseate in complexion, “Gilles” is the image of the actor during intermission—the actor who offers himself every day to the laughter of his fellows, the uncomprehending victim of a ceremony the full meaning of which seems to evade him. He is represented in a grandness that recalls Rembrandt's “Christ Presented to the People” (“Ecce Homo”). At the other extreme is the signboard that Watteau painted for Gersaint: it portrays an art dealer's shop in which a morose painting of Louis XIV is being symbolically stored away, as if to mark the end of his great reign. Although there are a number of figures, the protagonist of the picture is painting itself, as if Watteau at the end of his life were consecrating his art to eternity. By now Watteau was worn down by tuberculosis, and he died at the age of 37.

Themes and influences.

Watteau's art exemplifies the profound influence of the theatre as a motif of inspiration on the painting of the 18th century. The strongest influence on his work was exercised not by solemn tragedy but by the most ephemeral theatrical forms. One major influence was the commedia dell'arte, in which words count significantly less than gestures, a theatre linked to the actor, who brings his own routines with him. Another influence was the opéra ballet, with its grand display of fleeting images embodied by the dance, the singing, the costumes, and the decorations. Watteau belonged to a period of reaction against the classicism of the preceding era, in which division of the arts and of the separation of styles had been strictly observed. An attempt was thus made to ennoble the genres previously considered inferior (farce, improvised comedy, the novel), and bold transpositions from one form of art to the other were ventured, as in the fusion of poetry, music, painting, and dance into the new genre of opera. In many cases Watteau's painting is a chromatic transposition of the world of the opera.

Watteau interpreted his era in forms so delicate and evanescent that they seem to suggest the illnesses of the culture. In the quarrel that raged between ancients and moderns, Watteau seems instinctively to have sided with the moderns. For him antiquity and its great heroes were dead. His adoration of the present and its refined modernity, and fashion bordered on frivolousness. On the other hand, herejected every form of picturesque realism. His conception of Parnassus, the home of the gods of ancient Greece, resembles the Paris of his time, which he often reduced to the dimensions of a stage. Watteau was immersed in the ephemeral. Women reign in his paintings. Men—cavaliers or clowns—are there to please the women who glide by, enfolded in their splendid silken raiments. The statues in the parks are almost always statues of women. And even nature is feminine: trees with slender trunks, rich with a soft and uncertain foliage.

Posthumous reputation.

Watteau's circle of admirers dissolved shortly after his death, and his reputation began to wane. Watteau, who had interpreted the deepest aspirations of his own time, was found pleasing by few later in the 18th century as the Age of Reason developed. Painting then passed to the observation of reality and, finally, to social protest. It was natural that an artist, such as Watteau, who exalted the free reign of fantasy was set aside. Critics later, during the French Revolution, accused Watteau of “having infected the dwellings of his time with bad taste.”

The 19th century marked a certain resurgence of interest in Watteau, especially in England and among some French poets, namely Victor Hugo, Gérard de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. Gradually, his fortunes revived: Baudelaire presented a profound and precise interpretation of the artist, placing him among the “beacons” of mankind in one of his most famous poems (“Les Phares,” 1855). He too saw Watteau's art against the background of the comédie-balletas a whirling and weightless dance among popular stock characters or aristocratic cavaliers under the artificial lights of chandeliers.

In 1856 the Goncourt brothers published “Philosophie de Watteau,” in which they compared him to Rubens. Marcel Proust, at the end of the century, was among those who best sensed Watteau's greatness. Eventually the esteem Watteau enjoyed in the circle of art lovers, poets, and novelists extended to the broad public.

Giovanni Macchia



Abandoning the "grand manner" of Louis XIV's court painters, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) preferred to draw his inspiration from the great Dutch and Flemish artists of the 17th century and from the etchings of Jacques Cailot (1592-1635). With Embarkation for Cythera, one of the most famous and mysterious pictures of the century, Watteau introduced the theme of the fetes galantes, which was to play such an important part in rocaille art. He viewed the world as a "theatre of nature", where members of the fashionable social circles indulged themselves in leisurely pleasure. Watteau's subjects, often inspired by the theatre, echo the fanciful characters from the commedia dell 'arte, his colours provide a surreal touch to the Arcadian beauty that he strove to capture. He showed anecdotal flair and a good knowledge of the Dutch masters in his genre paintings, which portrayed poverty with an enigmatic and graceful melancholy. His cosmopolitan taste and sensibility contributed to the ambiguous complexity of his work - its wealth of allusions, equivocal meanings, and the often baffling, phantasmagoric quality that reflected the contradictions of the era.







1717; oil on canvas: 26x 19 cm (10x8 in) Musee du Louvre, Paris.





This small painting, also known as The Nonchalant Young Man, depicts a young man during the last years of Louis XIV's reign or at the beginning of the Regency period. He is either mid-dance or, as the poet Paul Claudel preferred in his analysis of the picture, about to start dancing. Claudel describes him as "a messenger of mother-of-pearl, herald of the dawn, half fawn, half bird...a creature of the woods... with one arm outstretched whilst the other, with a sweeping gesture, unfurls a poetic veil... his whole raison d'etre contained in the measured advance he is about to make." The contrived gesture and theatrical stance suggest a ballet dancer who has just entered the stage and is silhouetted against a wooded backdrop.


1. Clad in silk and lace, the figure dominates the picture and is clearly outlined against a fanciful landscape scene. The artist has captured his subtle movements - his body is perfectly poised - and the figure is reminiscent of a china statuette or tableau vivant. This effect of suspended animation is achieved with a undulating, curved line that traces the axes of the body. The curvature of the outstretched leg. the slightly tilled head, and the raised arms and hands all combine to give him a featherlike lightness. The strategic positioning of the figure at the centre of the canvas gives the composition a symmetrical stability.

2. The shape of the figure is delineated by assured and lively drawing, its outline lit by tiny highlights on the small folds of the garments, which help to impart a sense of movement. The suggestion of movement is typical of Rococo paintings, as is the tendency for an artist to imbue figures with a glowing, reflective light. The treatment of the figure is repeated in the surroundings: the uneven ground, the soft, curving outline of the trees, the fluffy clouds, and the evocative, vibrant colours.

3. The head stands out against the pale sky while the bat has been infused with an evanescent quality Its large, raised brim partially reveals the forehead, and the flesh-pink of the trimming echoes the colour of the cheeks. The young man's gaze, both intent and weary, is shown in golden-brown shadow. The outline of his adolescent face, his red, fleshy lips, well-defined eyelids, and fine hair create a sensual and sensitive head. His expression and general languor possibly suggest melancholy.

4. The figure pauses, motionless in a setting that is both symbolic and ambiguous. To the left of the figure, the light diffuses gradually through die clouds and trees, tasting a haziness across this side of the painting. The dancers face and the front of his leg are lit by a frontal source reminiscent of theatre footlights, which defines the physical features. These intimate details give great depth to a work that al first glance appears to be merely a playful and sensual expression of joie de vivre.





Antoine Watteau:

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.




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.


Masques et Buffons:
Il Dottore (1653), Pantalone (1550), and Arlecchino (1671),
published by Maurice Sand, 1860

see collection:

Jean-Antoine Watteau



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