A Chopin of Painting - Antoine Watteau

18 July 1721, the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau died at the age of 36 in Nogent-sur-Marne.

“Watteau, carnival where the loves of many famous hearts
Flutter capriciously like butterflies with gaudy wings;
Cool, airy settings where the candelabras' light
Touches with madness the couples whirling in the dance“
(Baudelaire, “Les Phares“)

Antoine Watteau: The (quite frugal) “Feast of Love”

In days when the next wave of mythological imaginations just had rolled over Europe’s art world and painters, sculptors and architects casted saints as well as the gods, goddesses and heroes of Antiquity in Baroque moulds, sometimes in sharply contoured lines of chiaroscuro, sometimes in an explosion of gaudy colours, serene scenes of dream-like landscapes peopled by buoyantly melancholic extras seemed oddly out of place. However, the blatant display of pomp and power of Absolutism left some, intellectuals, artists and connoisseurs, with something of a hangover, it was the infancy of Enlightenment and Roussean sentiments and somehow, the idea of bucolic places, fêtes galantes and imagery from the commedia dell'arte began to gain momentum and when Jean-Antoine in his mid-twenties took up the brush and painted them with light, somewhat fleeting strokes, softly lit and softly coloured, the young artist smoothly revolutionised the artistic taste of a century for a while and influenced another one. Not that he had a chance to realise that, since his breakthrough came a few years after his death while he had spawned the image of the isolated artist’s existence, thrown back unto itself and having no commitments but those to art during his life and times that ended, anticipating the 19th century, with consumption. And there it was. A myth was born.

Antoine Watteau: The Italian Comedians, 1721

Watteau’s sujet was unusually limited for an artist of his calibre, good, clean fun assembled with a touch of irony and to give utterance to this image was his only stroke of genius in this regard. But a quite consequential one. His actors of the commedia dell'arte, his ladies and gentlemen depicted populating Arcadia and uncommonly tame balls and Venetian feasts act on an imaginary stage and all seem about to dissolve in pure poetry the very next moment. Outside of the collections of melancholic enlightened-absolutistic monarchs and advocates of civil virtue, science and art, his works were soon forgotten when those who still had their say celebrated the rest of the 18th century in a rather un-Watteausque glittering ball that ended on the bayonets of the revolutionaries. The various fashions and artistic movements of the long 19th century resurrected him though, almost by accident and Watteau became something of an archetype of a melancholic artist as well as a pioneer of perception for the Impressionists and their successors.

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