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A Masterly Painter of Disguises

FOR YOUNG READERS

By Lora Taylor Gray / July 13, 1990



ANTOINE WATTEAU knew by the time he was 10 years old that the life of a roofer was not for him. His father was a successful master tiler who expected that his second son, Antoine, would join him in the roofing business. The year was 1694. There were numerous roofing jobs in the city of Valenciennes, as many of the buildings had been destroyed in the warfare between the King of France and William of Orange. Valenciennes was a Flemish city made a part of France by Louis XIV a few years before Antoine was born. Antoine's father was disappointed with his son's artistic ambitions and did everything he could to discourage him. How-ever, the boy loved the world of art and he spent his spare time studying the beautiful pictures in churches and the homes of the wealthy. As he sketched and painted, Antoine knew for sure he would become an artist.

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Soon, in spite of his father's wishes, young Watteau began art lessons with a local portrait and sign painter. The local artist didn't have much talent and wasn't a very good teacher, so at age 17, Antoine journeyed to Paris for further study. His parents had stopped financing his art studies, leaving him penniless, but he started his adventure to Paris full of hope and excitement. He soon became a scene painter and then worked on religious paintings in an art factory. The pay was low - just a few francs with a little food as extra payment.

The painter Claude Gillot took Watteau as his studio assistant in 1703. Gillot was not a great artist, but he loved everything about the theater and designed sets for the opera. Gillot's interest in the theater world inspired the 19-year-old Watteau. It seemed natural to take on Gillot's style. In some cases, it is hard to tell their works apart, but Gillot's works were sometimes jerky and awkward.

The artists both came to see that Watteau had the greater gift, and after five years they stopped working together. Gillot was probably discouraged, for he gave up his painting and from then on, worked only in etching and drawing.

In the beginning of his career, Watteau enjoyed painting people from real life. Some of his favorite subjects were chimney sweeps, beggars, jugglers, street vendors, and soldiers.

For a while Watteau worked under Claude Audran III, the splendid French interior decorator, and he was the most talented of Audran's many assistants. Watteau could have had a fine career as a decorator, but he preferred to work as a painter where he could be free in his world of imagination.

Watteau wasn't at all interested in the formal life of the royal court; his best friends were artists and art collectors. Later in his career, Watteau grew to love music - musicians, musical instruments, and dance. For a long time these were the favorite subjects for his paintings.

Watteau's works became more and more elegant. He painted beautiful young people dressed in satins and silks and resting or playing in parks and near lakes. They often seemed happy or in love and simply having a wonderful time. His subjects were shown in a dreamy setting with horses or dogs nearby.

He painted lovely children, royal people, and fine statues in formal gardens. The colors were delicate but also rich and interesting. Watteau loved landscapes and spent long hours studying shrubs and trees.

This was the time of the Louis XIV, who called himself the Sun King, who was building a beautiful palace named Versailles. But the merry works of Watteau didn't appeal to the Sun King. His walls were covered with heavily ornate art, which expressed his importance and power.

Nearly everything about Watteau's poetic work inspired artists throughout the 18th century. He became a great draftsman before perfecting his painting, and is considered the finest draftsman of that time. Watteau preferred his drawings to his paintings; he felt they reflected his ideas in a more perfect way. Wherever he went, he had a sketching notebook handy.

Watteau disliked money. He thought that money came from working at a job, and Watteau considered art as an important part of himself and not just another way to earn a living.

THE artist was fascinated by people in disguises or costumes and his works often look like sets for a stage. He loved the make-believe world of clowns. He liked to repeat characters he was fond of. An example of this is a lute player in ``The Music Party,'' who shows up in another of his paintings, called ``The Music Lesson.''

Antoine Watteau painted ``Italian Comedians'' in 1720. A group of his friends posed in the costumes of a troupe of actors. In the center of the painting is the clown character. Although ``Italian Comedians'' is a happy work of art, there is a serious look to the face of the clown. Watteau felt a close connection with his drawing of the clown, who seemed emotionally apart from the rest of the people in the painting. Although his works were often happy, Watteau was serious and often rather sad.

Antoine Watteau's poetical art brings us closer to the theater, and we meet grand people dressed as princes and princesses. When Watteau painted everyday citizens they were full of fun and character. His loving and elegant royal couples seemed part of a fairy tale time of long, long ago.