Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Young Watteau

Antoine Watteau although thought of as essentially and characteristically French, he was born in 1683 at Valenciennes, near the Franco-Flemish frontier only six years after it ceased to be part of Flanders thus giving him primarily a Flemish heritage.
It was this weakling, whose frail form was prematurely ravaged by consumption, who some say founded the greatest and strongest of all the modern schools of painting.
His father, a plowman and carpenter, was in poor circumstances, and the boy is said to have had an unhappy childhood. Watteau senior bore the reputation of being a hard man, and wanted his son to become a tiler and hewer like himself so when young Antoine obtained permission to work in the studio of a local artist called Guerin, who was painter to the municipality of Valenciennes, the father refused to pay the expenses of his son's education.
After the death of Guerin in 1702, Antoine Watteau, then aged nineteen, ran away to Paris with a scene-painter called Metayer. But when they had arrived in Paris, this man soon abandoned his young companion when he had no more work to give him, and henceforward Watteau, already in delicate health and disowned by his father, was alone in Paris, without money, clothes, or resources of any kind. In desperate poverty he at last found employment in a wretched workshop where cheap religious pictures were produced by the dozen, to be retailed by country shopkeepers. Nowadays printing has saved artists from this kind of drudgery, but in the early eighteenth century even the lowest-priced coloured card had to be done by hand. What was required of Watteau and his fellow-labourers was rapidity of execution in making copies of popular subjects, and for this work he was payed a small pittance and one daily meal of soup !
Yet even in this miserable trade Watteau managed to distinguish himself, and was entrusted with the reproduction of a " St. Nicholas " that was in great demand. One day the mistress of the workshop forgot to give Watteau the " St. Nicholas " to copy, and remembering her oversight later in the day, she climbed up to Watteau's attic to scold him for idling. After she had worked herself up into a passion, Watteau amazed her by showing her his day's work, a perfect St. Nicholas, which he had completely finished from memory.

St. Nicholas
 Through all this period of drudgery and semi-starvation, Watteau never despaired, and snatched every opportunity to improve his art, drawing from Nature at night and during his rare holidays and leisure moments. Then by a happy chance he made the acquaintance of the decorative artist Claude Gillot, who, after seeing Watteau's drawings, invited the young man to live with him.
Rescued from his miserable factory, Watteau worked with enthusiasm at the ornamental painting of his new friend, who was then chiefly engaged in representing scenes from Italian comedy.
Claude Gillot scene from “Master Andrews’s Tomb”

Watteau, who in his poverty and ill-health worshiped elegance and all the graces of life, soon rivaled and surpassed his tutor in painting slim Harlequins, simple Pierrots, dainty Columbines, and other well-defined characters of Italian comedy ; and it may be that Gillot grew jealous of his protege. After a period of warm friendship, the two artists parted on bad terms, and though Watteau in after-life never ceased to praise Gillot's pictures, he kept silent about the man, and would never answer when questioned about the breach between them. Gillot, on the other hand, tacitly acknowledged his pupil's superiority, for some time after the quarrel he abandoned painting and devoted himself to etching.
When Watteau left Gillot, his fellow-assistant, Nicolas Lancret (1690- 1743), who afterwards became his pupil, left with him, and both young men found employment with Claude Audran, a painter of ornaments, who was also a guardian of the Luxembourg Palace.

 Nicolas Lancret, The Luncheon Party.

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