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Valenciennes 1684–1721 Nogent-sur-Marne

Jean-Antoine Watteau, despite his brief life, is one of the key figures in French rococo art and the inventor of the Fête Galante, a genre which showed amorous couples flirting in an idyllic landscape setting. Although Watteau’s immediate influences were French decorative painters like Claude Gillot and Claude Audran, his real influences were the Venetian poésie of Giorgione (ca. 1477/78–1510), Titian (1488/90–1576) and Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) as well as the mythologies of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Watteau’s earliest paintings are of military subjects such as La Porte de Valenciennes (Frick Collection, New York), which depicted French soldiers at rest or on the march. As with nearly all Watteau’s works, they are executed on a small scale and focus on the human dimension: the boredom of the soldiers, their camaraderie, smoking and drinking and playing with camp followers or dogs. 

From these lowly subjects Watteau graduated to works of greater aesthetic and psychological refinement such as Les Fêtes vénitiennes (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) and Les Charmes de la vie (Wallace Collection, London) both of which show groups of silk-clad men and women gathered in a park, conversing, flirting and playing music. Watteau would frequently introduce commedia dell’arte figures, such as Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles) (musée du Louvre, Paris), or musicians to the scene, blurring the boundaries of performance and real love. He was an accomplished musician as were some of his patrons who he included in these concerts champêtres in the Venetian tradition. Such scenes became extremely popular and Watteau was admitted to the Académie as a ‘peintre des fêtes galantes’. His masterpiece in this vein is the Embarkation for Cythera (musée du Louvre, Paris), and in its combinations of contemporary couples making love in an aura of a lost golden age epitomizes Watteau’s highly personal romantic vision. It was painted in 1717 as his reception piece into the Académie and it is unusually large, measuring 1.29 x 1.94 m. 

Watteau became ill with consumption and went briefly to England looking for a cure. When he returned, he spent time with his patron, Edmé-François Gersaint, the art dealer for whom he painted a shop sign (Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin) on a piece of wood. It shows fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen pondering works of art in a gallery interior, filled with paintings and crates. It can be seen as an advertisement for Watteau, recently returned to Paris, as much as for the wily art dealer, Gersaint. Shortly after painting this masterpiece Watteau died. Despite being ill for much of his adult life, Watteau was remarkably productive, painting around 200 paintings and making many more drawings. His drawings were collected, and in some cases executed, in his own lifetime, as finished objects. He perfected the art of drawing from life in three colors and his efforts in this genre are among the great achievements of French rococo art.


Top Auction Results for Jean-Antoine Watteau

La Surprise - A couple embracing while a figure dressed as Mezzetin tunes a guitar
Sold for £12,361,250 ($24,424,520)
London, Christie’s, 8 July 2008, Important Old Master & British Pictures Evening Sale, lot 21

Le conteur
Sold for £2,423,750 ($3,527,507)
London, Christie’s, 13 December 2000, Important Old Master Pictures, lot 61

Five studies of children
Sold for £817,875 ($1,240,708)
London, Christie’s, 2 July 2013, Old Master & Early British Drawings & Watercolours, lot 57


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