Apprenticed to the set designer Claude Gillot, Jean-Antoine Watteau learned painting in the setting of the theatre. Watteau, born October 10, 1684, went on to create some of the most beautiful and psychologically fascinating images of the commedia dell’arte prior to the twentieth century. Mezzetin (above, from 1717) shows the comic valet of the theater strumming his mandolin, pining for the girl he never seems to win, symbolized here by the statue of the woman in the rear with her back turned to the singer. By showing the psychological state of the character as portrayed by the actor, within the stage conventions of a painted “painted” backdrop, Watteau addresses issues of identity and reality in the context of the theater that point forward to similar explorations by artists such as Pablo Picasso nearly two centuries later.
Gilles (above, from 1718) stands as Watteau’s most familiar image, one of the most popular paintings at the Louvre. Gilles wears the costume of a pierrot from the commedia dell’arte as well as an facial expression of discomfort and perhaps embarrassment, as if he has forgotten his lines and suffers the mockery of the other actors around him. Painting near the twilight of the Baroque and at the dawn of the Rococo, Watteau stands firmly in neither camp—Rubens-esque in his technique and light in his subject matter, ala Fragonard and Boucher, yet piercing to the individuality of the figure in a way that seems more modern than eighteenth century art normally does. Perhaps Watteau’s lack of an aristocratic clientele pushed him to create images for the newly emergent upper middle class of France, the first generation to realize the promise of the swelling Enlightenment ideals around them and value nature and human nature over God and king. Watteau’s figures seem awkward in their theatrical guises as much as they seem awkward in their time, as if they understood somehow that they were born too early.
Before tuberculosis (“consumption” back then) took Watteau’s life in 1721, at the age of 37, he painted Shop Sign of Gersaint (above), an advertisement of sorts for his art dealer Gersaint. Painted in only 8 days, Watteau bids farewell to the world in this painting, showing his own works being packed away, unsold and unwanted. Watteau lived a life full of illnesses and sensed that his own time on earth would be short. Little known during his lifetime, Watteau’s reputation lived on briefly through some followers before fading into obscurity. In the mid to late 1800s, exhibitions of his work from private collections caught the eye of Paris and Impressionists such as Renoir, who saw Watteau’s individuality in style and in his characterizations as a predecessor of their own bucking of prevailing trends. Today, Watteau stands as one of France's most beloved artists, an artist for whom his time has finally arrived.