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Art Matters LIII Reflections on various art media, why use pastel, part 7 Watteau origins & history

Today continues an exploration of two-dimensional art media-specifically more about this history of pastel. Remember: the pigments used in pastels are created in a way that makes them closer to the natural dry pigments than that of any other mediums, plus their vast array of colors can be blended just as with liquid paint pigment, traits which soon made them a popular option. For the first few centuries, pastels were in common use (from the Renaissance through the 1600’s), they were mainly used as a drawing medium for preliminary studies since there was no easy way to display them, or for miniature works that could be in small covered frames. As was mentioned last time, in the lifetime of Rosalba Carriera, plate glass came into use and provided a means to safely display works on paper, in particular pastel and watercolor and in recent times, printmaking.

During the Rococo Period and the lifetimes of Carriera and one of her contemporary pastelists, Watteau, Europe and the Americas saw the end of the Age of Kings and the rise of the Middle Classes and the Age of the Enlightenment. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was a decade younger than Carriera and died during the time of her brief but influential stay at the French Court. Watteau is primarily known for his colorful and dynamic painting style reminiscent of the Mannerist tradition of Corregio and Rubens. His career began as the highly ornate Baroque style was waning and the charming, more naturalistic Rococo style favored by Carriera and Watteau was gaining admirers.

Born in 1684 in the town of Valenciennes, a town which had recently been acquired by the French from the Spanish Netherlands, Watteau showed an early interest in painting and was soon apprenticed to a local painter. Leaving for Paris in 1702, Watteau found employment in a workshop near Notre Dame, where he made copies of popular devotional paintings-a spot is still a popular spot to shop for small trinkets and tourist memorabilia. By 1705 Watteau was working in the studio of Claude Gillot, whose art was a reaction to the stiff court art promulgated during the reign of Louis XIV. Gillot exposed Watteau to the characters of the commedia dell’arte whose players may be the basis for modern improv and pantomime, an art form which influenced Watteau’s own subjects, specifically the incorporation of theatrical subject matter into his works.

Another influence on Watteau’s style was his time in the workshop of Claude Audran, III, an interior decorator whose style brought a note of elegance and light arabesque detailing to his drawings. Working with Audran at the Palais du Luxembourg also exposed Watteau to the mannerist art of Rubens, whom along with the Italian master Corregio, were major influences to Watteau’s style and subject matter. By 1709, Watteau had applied for the prestigious Prix de Rome (a three to five year scholarship for art students to study in Rome, which continued until 1968). Watteau lost out on that prize, but was made a full member of the Academy Francais three years later.

Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera

Watteau’s required piece for his first reception was his masterwork Pilgrimage to Cythera, which took him five years to complete. Watteau’s paintings and his subjects were of greater interest to the middle class, the bourgeois, and his work was not widely celebrated by the art critics of his day, but Watteau’s work anticipated future trends such as “Art for art’s sake,” driven by the needs of the artist who creates it, not by the latest whims of society who purchases their creations. Watteau’s interest in charming pastoral and peaceful scenes executed in a manner and with a nod to the theater influenced future artists. Many of Watteau’s subjects as mentioned above drew upon the world of Italian comedy and ballet.

A prolific and gifted draftsman, Watteau preferred drawing to painting, filling his sketchbooks with landscapes, studies of old masters and of models in various poses. A few of his studies led to paintings, but Watteau drew for the love of drawing of which perhaps 20% of his works survived to the present day. As with some of the other early pastelists, Watteau worked in red chalk, or with red, black and white chalks creating stunning effects. Antoine neither signed nor dated his drawings, so relating them to finished paintings or provenance of his drawings is difficult.

Watteau, portrait Rosalba Carriera

Watteau: A Man Reclining and a Woman Seated on the Ground

Watteau, Seated woman

Watteau-drawing-portrait chalk

Watteau lived his life like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable, worrying little about his future financial security, and worrying his friends with his lack of concern. Perhaps Watteau foresaw his short life span, given his sickly childhood and fragile physique. A trip to London to consult with Dr. Richard Mead, an early specialist in contagious disease and an admirer of Watteau's work, failed to cure what appears to have been tuberculosis of the larynx. On Watteau’s return to France, he spent his last few months at the estate of his patron, Abbé Haranger, where he died in 1721, at the age of 36. Watteau’s subjects frequently have a sense of wistfulness and sadness and a nod to the transitory nature of love and other earthly delights. Perhaps that is not a surprising response given how little time he had to produce his art. Watteau’s nephew, Louis Joseph Watteau, son of Antoine's brother Noël Joseph Watteau (1689–1756), and grand nephew, François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, son of Louis, followed Antoine into painting. Next time another Rococo artist, Chardin.

Studies of a Woman Playing a Guitar, or Holding a Musical Score (c.1717)

Janet Cornacchio is an artist member of Front Street Art Gallery, President of Scituate Arts Association & a Realtor. You can contact her at

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