Watteau’s Journeys Into the Impossible

Lucian Lechintan, SJ

 Lucian Lechintan, SJ / Art / Published Date:8 October 2021/Last Updated Date:14 October 2021

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The 300th anniversary of Antoine Watteau’s death (July 18, 1721) passed almost unnoticed. The world of this artist, with its comic actors and theatrical performers, is best revealed by his atelier. The image of this place, handed down to us by a contemporary, is in some ways shocking.

The painter “rarely cleaned his palette and often went several days without replenishing it. The vase of grease oil, of which he made so much use, was full of dirt and dust and all the colors that came out of his brushes as he dipped them in.” This chaotic environment was the place where Watteau painted “the secret tragedy of a society that loses itself in the full satisfaction of its desires” (A. Hauser).

One of his earliest paintings commemorated the fateful day of May 13, 1697, when, following various conspiracies, Italian actors were expelled from Paris by a decree of the Sun King. The seal placed on the doors of the theatre under the mild gaze of a Harlequin gave rise to an impressive series of theatrical compositions. Watteau understood that the stage is not a neutral space and that, once a show is over, the audacity of a performance can be at the cost of exclusion or reprisal.

La Civilta Cattolica

Against a culture that promoted the image of the actor as a charlatan and buffoon, a nomad who was even refused Christian burial, the remedy found was the celebration of this figure. Watteau’s actors became icons bearing a sacred truth with which they made their way through history. And it is no accident that the heroes of the commedia dell’arte fascinated him so much. This world of reveries, of Harlequins and Columbines, of Pierrot and Gilles lives in the inner spaces of humanity with their radical separation            from any violence.

The French artist has always been recognized for his aspiration to build a “paradise” where nature is the friend of humans and where people welcome each other spontaneously. By turning to places where tragic emotion is born Watteau undertook, in a certain sense, a journey against the current, leaving without regret an extremely conformist society, for whom the world ended at Versailles. He had trained as a ceiling painter and well understood that “having your head in the clouds” you gain more than you lose.