all that smoky beauty somehow predicts the storm to come


Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is a painter for those who expect disappointment from life and wouldn’t be happy if things turned out any other way. He did not invent neurotic melancholia or bittersweet irony, but many of the delicate young men and women sashaying through his paintings, whether in pastoral or urban settings, seem precociously aware of acting in a world whose uncertain meaning they don’t dare to fathom.

A Frenchman who serves to define European Rococo, Watteau also has the ability to be continually modern. As with Giorgione and Vermeer, the paucity of biographical facts attracted Romantic mythomancers. (It helped that Watteau died young, at 37, of tuberculosis.) In 1873-74 the Goncourt brothers published an influential essay about him in their history of 18th-century art. The aesthetic movement elevated him higher still. His paintings inspired numerous literary works, including a story by Walter Pater and a poem by Proust.

Jed Perl is another smitten writer.

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