Watteau you know


What kind of people love the paintings and drawings of Antoine Watteau? I think of them listening to Nick Drake and knowing every Alan Rudolph film. In fact, they are the present-day counterparts of the characters inhabiting Watteau’s paintings: young but already scuffed-up by life, dreamers of the exquisite woebegone. I don’t know how one can love Watteau without somehow making him one’s contemporary. For example, this premier painter of women’s necks seemed ever-present in the East Village of yore, with its hordes of women in nape-revealing punk haircuts. Watteau’s complex formula has a strong element of verité as it revels in artifice and seeps wistfulness. His sentiments, freshened by some readings on him, can seem eternally present. From what has been handed down through scraps of half-reliable information, Watteau, the son of a rather disagreeable roofer, escaped from the Flemish hinterlands, and the gritty, striving narrowness that appeared to be his inheritance, to Paris as an apprentice decorative painter. After several masters, including the theatre painter, Gillot, he made his mark among the rich intelligentsia who were ultimately only of use to him as a springboard towards creating the imaginative concoction that established him, the fête galante, a discontinuous tableau of love, flirtation and posturing. In most works, playfully-costumed aristocrats pose as actors, musicians, or themselves in the foregrounds of private parks. An elusive, complicated character himself, Watteau moved from one friend’s house to the next, often pursued by avid collectors, and died at 36 of tuberculosis.

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