Jean-Antoine Watteau (Flemish/French: baptised October 10, 1684 – died July 18, 1721),better known as Antoine Watteau, was a French painter whose brief career spurred the revival of interest in colour and movement, as seen in the tradition of Correggio and Rubens. He revitalized the waning Baroque style, shifting it to the less severe, more naturalistic, less formally classical Rococo. Watteau is credited with inventing the genre of fêtes galantes, scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with a theatrical air. Some of his best known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian comedy and ballet.
About French Rococo Style of Painting: Centred in France and emerging as a reaction to the Baroque grandeur of King Louis XIV’s royal court at the Palace of Versailles, the Rococo movement or style of French painting was associated particularly with Madame Pompadour, the mistress of the new King Louis XV, and the Parisian homes of the French aristocracy. It is a whimsical and elaborately decorative style of art, whose name derives from the French word ‘rocaille’ meaning, rock-work after the forms of sea shells.
In the world of Rococo, all art forms, including fine art painting, architecture, sculpture, interior design, furniture, fabrics, porcelain and other “objets d’art” are subsumed within an ideal of elegant prettiness. Rococo art is exemplified in works by famous painters like Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) especially his ‘fete galante’ outdoor courtship parties; Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) with his pictures of love and seduction; Francois Boucher (1703-70) with his lavish paintings of opulent self-indulgence; the Venetian Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) known for his fantastically decorative Wurzburg Residence frescoes (1750-3); and the sculpture of Claude Michel Clodion (1738-1814), sculptor of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, best known for his terracotta sculpture of nymphs and satyrs. In Britain, Rococo painting achieved its zenith in the female portraits of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Rococo was eventually replaced by Neoclassical art, which was the signature visual style of Napoleon in France and of the American revolution.
Origin of Rococo
Rococo is the frivolous, wayward child of noble, grand Baroque. The parent was born in Italy, the child in France. The Baroque (barocco, a rough pearl) developed in the early 17th-century and spread rapidly throughout Europe. At first predominantly a sculptural and architectural style, its greatest exponent and genius was Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) who, like Michelangelo before him, was first and foremost a sculptor, but turned naturally to painting, theatrical decorations and architecture while serving several Popes in the remodelling of Rome. His “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” and the small church of S. Andrea al Quirinale in Rome both reveal the tendencies which lead on to the rococo style: a brilliant use of light and shade on expensive and elaborate materials, such as coloured marbles and bronze.
The seventeenth century was an age of grandeur, of strong religious sentiments expressed clearly and forcibly in striking visual forms in the paintings of Caravaggio and Cortona, the sculptures of Bernini and the architecture of Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Its most important manifestations were Italian, and it was really the swan song of Italy as a creative power, for already at the death of Pope Urban VIII, Bernini’s patron, the new star was making its appearance – France, which was to continue her meteoric rise throughout the century and dominate fashionable and artistic Europe in the succeeding century.
French Rococo Painting
Paradoxically, the rococo style was heralded in painting, much earlier than in the other arts, by a Flemish painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). He moved to Paris in about 1702 and began working as a theatrical scene-painter, before studying with the Keeper of the Luxembourg Palace, Claude Audran, an artist who painted in a decorative, late baroque style. It was the Rubens’ Life of Marie de Medicis’ series in the Luxembourg Palace which most impressed Watteau and through him was to influence the course of French rococo painting. He studied these together with the great Venetian painters and, in the words of Michael Levey, although he had “no public career, no great commissions from Church or Crown; seldom executed large-scale pictures: had no interest in painting historical subjects”, he became the greatest French artist of the first half of the century.
Watteau’s pictures – See: Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg, Berlin – with their combination of Rubens’ colour and his own delicate eroticism, were always more than a little melancholy. The lyrical quality of his painting, with its suggestion of sophisticated amorality, was precisely that sought by French society in the Regency years: Watteau was not only catering for a taste but also creating one. For more about nudity in Rococo painting, see: Female Nudes in Art History.
The other two major painters of the French rococo period, Francois Boucher (1703-70) (noted also as the director of the Gobelins tapestry factory) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), both purveyed an entirely different variety of the style from that of Watteau and are often thought to have vulgarized where Watteau had refined. Whereas Watteau achieved an all-enveloping aura of aristocratic distancing, Boucher and Fragonard produced a more intimate and obvious effect.
Significantly, Boucher’s career opened as an engraver of Watteau’s pictures, and from then on assumed the pattern of traditional success. Winning the Prix de Rome, he worked in Italy from 1727 to 1731. In 1734 he became an Academician, and with the help of his friend and Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, he became the most sought-after painter in France for every type of picture, but in particular for his vivid mythological painting of classical subjects. In these, often rendered in a somewhat unsubtly erotic vein, Boucher, like Watteau, revealed a strong debt to Rubens and Venetian art, especially to Paolo Veronese, his finest predecessor in painting brilliantly clothed and displayed mythologies. Boucher became Director of the Academy in 1765, and altogether made a highly important contribution to the rococo movement through his many paintings and his designs for tapestries and other decorations.