Monday, 4 July 2011

Watteau finally success and an ending

Once again the jealousy of a senior threatened Watteau's progress. Watteau showed his master a realistic painting of soldiers on the march, and Audran, who naturally did not want to lose so talented an assistant, advised him not to paint realistic pictures lest he should lose his skill as a decorator. But Watteau, determined to devote himself to original work, was now diplomat enough to avoid a quarrel, and wanting to leave Audran courteously, informed him that he must return to Valenciennes to visit his family.
At Valenciennes the young artist continued his studies of nature and contemporary life, and he painted a series of military pictures illustrating camp-life, marches, and outpost duty. 

Camp fire
But after staying there long enough to justify his visit, he returned to Paris, where he was now getting to be well known.

At this time his great aspiration was to win the Prix de Rome and to visit Italy, and with this object he competed in 1709, the subject set by the Academy being " David granting Abigail Nabal's Pardon." The prize, however, was won by a student named Grison, Watteau being placed second and thus losing his opportunity of visiting Rome.

Still eager to study in Italy, and still hopeful that the Academy might help him to accomplish his desire, Watteau three years later contrived to get two of his military pictures hung in a room through which Academicians were in the habit of passing. Several admired the "vigorous coulouring" and a certain harmony which made them appear the work of an old master," and one Academician, de la Fosse, made inquiries as to the painter. It was then discovered that this young painter, already twenty-nine, was so modest that all he wanted from the Academy was its influence with the King that he might receive a small grant to enable him to study in Italy.
Attracted by his talent and modesty, de la Fosse sought an interview with Watteau which had the most surprising results. With a rare generosity the Academician told the young man that he had no need to seek instruction in Italy, that he undervalued his own ability, and the Academicians believed he was already capable of doing them honour ; in short, he had only to take the proper steps to be accepted a member of their society. The young artist did as he was told, and was immediately received as a member of the French Academy.
In all the long history of the Academy of France only one incident similar to this has been recorded, for Chardin was invited under similar circumstances. That a young artist, without friends or fortune, who had failed to win the Prix de Rome and humbly begged for help in his studies, should spontaneously be elected an Academician, is a miracle in the history of all academies. This event was the turning-point in Watteau's career, and henceforward his fame was assured and he was able to earn his living in comfort.
It was on August 28, 1717, that Watteau was finally admitted to the Academy. All successful candidates are required to deposit a diploma work after their election, and it was for this purpose that Watteau eventually painted his famous masterpiece, " L'Embarquement pour Cythere" which is now in the Louvre.

The Embarkation for Cythera

The Embarkation for Cythera (Detail)

In this poetically conceived picture, which shows a crowd of gallant youths and fair maidens about to embark for the legendary isle of perfect love, Watteau revealed a science of colour harmony which was one hundred and fifty years ahead of his day. He had already excited the admiration of his contemporaries by a method of painting which was as successful as it was original. He would cover his canvas copiously and, to all appearance, vaguely with a thick layer of pigment, and on this he would proceed, so to speak, to chisel out his detail. Figures, sky, and landscape background were then built up by a series of minute touches, which gave his pictures a peculiarly vibrating and scintillating effect. His division of tones and his wonderful orchestration of complementary colours make Watteau a forerunner of the prismatic colouring of the more scientific painters of the nineteenth century.
Unfortunately he was not destined to enjoy long the fame and fortune which now awaited him. The privation and hardship of his early manhood had undermined his always frail constitution and left him a prey to pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar progressive systemic disease.
As if he knew the end was approaching, he worked feverishly during his last years. For a time he lived with a wealthy collector named Crozat, for whose dining-room he painted a set of " The Four Seasons." Though very comfortable at Crozat's house, which was filled with precious things and with paintings and drawings by old masters he admired, a desire for more complete independence led Watteau to leave it and live with his friend Vleughels, who afterwards became Principal of the Academy at Rome. In 1718 he left Vleughels, and shut himself up in a small apartment alone with his dreams and his illness, displaying then that craving for solitude which is said to be one of the symptoms of tuberculosis. Later, somebody having spoken well of England, he suddenly had an almost morbid longing to cross the Channel.

In 1719 he came to London, where he painted and had some success, till the climate made him ill and unable to work. He returned to France more exhausted and weaker in health than he had ever been before, but slightly recovered during a six months' stay with his friend, the art-dealer Gersaint, for whom he painted a sign, an exquisitely finished interior with figures, in the short space of eight mornings—he was still so weak that he could only paint half the day.

L'Enseigne de Gersaint
Then, hoping that he might recover his strength in the country, he moved to a house at Nogent which had been lent to him, but there his health rapidly declined and he gave himself up to religion, his last picture being a Crucifixion for the curate of the parish. Still pathetically hopeful that change of air might do him good, he begged his friend Gersaint to make arrangements for him to journey to Valenciennes. But while waiting for strength to move to his native town the end came, and on July 18, 1721, he died suddenly in Gersaint's arms. He was only thirty-seven years old.

The real generosity of Watteau's nature is well illustrated by a touching incident during the last months of his life. His pupil, Jean Pater (1696-1736), had offended him, as Lancret had also done, by imitating his own style and subjects too closely, and in a fit of ill-temper he dismissed him from his studio. But during his last illness Watteau remembered how he had suffered in his youth from the jealousy of his seniors, and he reproached himself with having been unjust as well as unkind to Pater. He besought his friend Gersaint to persuade Pater to return to him, and when the latter arrived the dying man spent a month giving Pater all the help and guidance that he could in order to atone for his former injustice.

The painting "Qu'ay­je fait, assassins maudits"
Which translates as "Whatever I build, assassins destroy" is very appropriate in regard to the cleaning and so called restoration of Watteau's works.

More on the controversial business of restoration and cleaning of art in a future Blog

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