A revolution in art mirrored the change in politics and morals. After the collapse of Louis XIV’s imperialistic policy in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13), the spirit of France turned from the gore of glory to the pleasures of peace. The mood of the time found no need for new churches, more use for city mansions like the Hôtel Matignon and the Palais-Bourbon (1721–22). Excepting such architectural immensities, dwellings and rooms became smaller now, but their decoration was more delicate and refined. Baroque began to pass into rococo:I i.e., the style of irregular forms and abundant ornament took a turn toward an almost brittle elegance, running to playful and incalculable fantasy. The delight in exquisite finish, bright colors, and surprising evolutions of design became a mark of the style Régence. The classical orders disappeared under a frolic of dainty curves, corners were concealed, moldings were lavishly carved. Sculpture abandoned the Olympian grandeur of Versailles for smaller forms of graceful movement and emotional appeal. Furniture shunned right angles and straight lines, and aimed at comfort rather than dignity. Now came the siège à deux, the armchair built for two, designed for friends and lovers resenting the pathos of distance. Charles Cressent, chief cabinetmaker to the Regent, established the Regency style with chairs, tables, desks, and bureaus brilliant with mother-of-pearl marquetry and gay with conscious loveliness.
Philippe himself, in person, manners, and tastes, symbolized the transition to rococo. When he moved the government from Versailles to Paris he brought art down from the classic sobriety of Louis XIV to the lighter spirit of the capital, and he directed the wealth of the bourgeoisie to the patronage of art. He was patron ex officio and par excellence; he was rich in his own right, and paid handsomely. His taste was not for grandeur or massive display, nor for the traditional pictorial themes of religion, legend, or history, but for minor masterpieces of perfect workmanship tempting the fingers and opening the eyes, like jeweled caskets, silver vessels, golden bowls, fanciful chinoiseries, and paintings of luscious women dressed in nature by Rubens or Titian, or swaying in Veronese’s gorgeous robes. His art collection in the Palais-Royal was thrown open to all responsible visitors; it would have rivaled any collection had it not been for his mistresses, who asked and received. Artists came to his rooms to study and copy, and Philippe went to their studios to watch and learn. To Charles Antoine Coypel, his premier peintre, he spoke with characteristic courtesy and modesty: “I am happy and proud, monsieur, to receive your advice, and to avail myself of your lessons.”65 He would have been a highly civilized man had he not suffered from thirst and an uncontrollable appreciation of beauty.
The quality of the age expressed itself most clearly in painting. Liberated by the Regent and their new patrons, artists like Watteau, Pater, Lancret, and Lemoyne discarded the rules that Le Brun had laid down in the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. They responded willingly to the demand for pictures that would reflect the Regent’s appetite for beauty and pleasure, the vivacious grace of Regency women, the warm colors of Regency furniture and drapes, the gay parties in the Bois de Boulogne, the games and masquerades of the court at Sceaux, the fluid morals of actors, actresses, prima donnas, and danseuses. The pagan mythology replaced the grim stories of somber saints; strange figures from China, Turkey, Persia, or India let the released mind roam freely through exotic dreams; idyllic pastorals supplanted heroic “histories”; portraits of purchasers superseded the exploits of kings.
Some painters already famous under Louis XIV continued to flourish in the Regency. Antoine Coypel, after adorning Versailles in the correct style of the old court, painted in the Palais-Royal ladies in alluring négligé. Nicolas de Largillière, already fifty-nine when the Grand Monarque died, carried on for thirty years more; he hangs in pride and wig, with wife and daughter, in the inexhaustible Louvre. Alexandre François Desportes, who died at eighty-two in 1743, was now painting spacious landscapes, like thePaysage d’Île de France in the Musée de Compiègne. François Lemoyne, who killed himself at forty-nine (1737), decorated the Church of St.-Sulpice piously, then warmed the Salon d’ Hercule at Versailles with voluptuous forms that would be inherited by Boucher. And Claude Gillot, designer of scenery and costumes for the stage, engraver of landscapes and theatrical tableaux, introduced that style of fêtes champêtres which we associate with his pupil Antoine Watteau.
Antoine was a Fleming, born to a tiler in Valenciennes (1684). Flemish influences first molded him—the paintings of Rubens, Ostade, and Teniers, and the teaching of a local painter, Jacques Gérin. When Gérin died (1702), Watteau advanced to Paris, penniless. He earned his bread by assisting a scene painter, then by working in a factory that turned out small portraits and devotional pictures wholesale. His wages were three francs a week plus enough food to keep him alive and let him develop tuberculosis. Another fever burned in him—the hunger for greatness and fame. He gave his evenings and holidays to drawing persons and places from nature. One of these sketches struck the eye and fancy of Gillot, who was painting panels for the Comédie-Italienne; he invited Watteau to join him. Antoine came, and fell in love with the actors; he painted incidents from their hectic lives, their reckless shifting loves, their games and picnics, their voluble panic when Mme. de Maintenon, offended by their satire, restricted them to pantomime. Watteau captured the pathos of their instability, the comical expressions of their faces, the folds of their strange costumes; and he gave these pictures a gleaming texture that may have stirred some jealousy in Gillot. In any case master and pupil quarreled and parted, and Antoine moved to the studio of Claude Audran in the Luxembourg. There he studied with awe Rubens’ pictorial apotheosis of Marie de Médicis; and in the gardens he found vistas of trees and clouds that lured his pencil or brush.
Those were bitter years when French boys were being hurried off to one battlefield after another in the long War of the Spanish Succession. Their immolation was duly prefaced by patriotic parades and pathetic farewells; Watteau described them in The Departure of the Troops with such delicacy of feeling and technique that Audran in turn took alarm at being surpassed. Hoping to win the Prix de Rome, Antoine entered the competition offered by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1709; he won only the second prize, but the Academy enrolled him as a member in 1712. After many minor efforts, he reached the crest of his curve with The Embarkation for Cythera (1717), now one of the choicest treasures of the Louvre. All Paris applauded it; the delighted Regent made him an official painter to the King, and the Duchesse de Berry commissioned him to decorate her Château La Muette. He worked feverishly, as if knowing that he had only four more years to live. Antoine Crozat, who rivaled Philippe himself as a patron of art, offered Watteau board and bed in his commodious hôtel; there the younger Antoine studied the finest collection yet gathered by a private citizen. For Crozat he painted four decorative panels, The Seasons. Soon dissatisfied with luxury, he moved from place to place, even to London (1719); but coal dust and fog drove him back to Paris, where he lived for a time with the art dealer Gersaint. For him Antoine painted, in eight mornings, two sides of a signboard showing fashionable Parisians examining pictures in a shop; over the casual realism the delicate folds of a woman’s dress cast the shimmering light characteristic of Watteau. Daily his consumptive cough grew worse. Hoping that rural air would help him, he took a house in Nogent, near Vincennes. There, in the arms of Gersaint and the Church, he died (July 18, 1721), aged thirty-seven.
His long illness infected his character and his art. Slender and ailing, nervous and diffident, easily tired, seldom smiling and rarely gay, he kept his sorrow out of his art, and painted life as his wishes saw it—a panorama of lively actors and lissome women, an ode to wistful joy. Too frail for sensuality, he maintained amid the license of the Regency a decency of morals which was reflected in the temper of his work. He painted a few nudes, but they held no fleshly lure; for the rest his women wore radiant costumes tiptoeing through the vestibules of love. His brush fluctuated between the vicissitudes of actors, the rituals of courtship, and the kaleidoscope of the sky. He clothed L’Indifférent66 in the costliest, laciest raiment he could imagine. He pictured The French Comedians67 in a dramatic scene, and caught the Italian actor Giuseppe Baletti as Gilles the clown68 in a brown study and white pantaloons. He surprised A Guitar Player69 in a mood of amorous melancholy, and saw A Music Party70 entranced by a lute. He placed his figures against dreamy backgrounds of playful fountains, swaying trees, and gliding clouds, with here and there a pagan statue echoing Poussin, as in La Fête d’Amour71 or Les Champs-Élysées.72 He loved women from a timid distance, with all the longing of one too weak to woo; and he was moved not so much by cozy contours as by the luster of their hair and the sinuous flow of their robes. Upon their garments he cast all the wizardry of his colors, as if knowing that by such raiment woman had become the mystery engendering, besides mankind, half the wit and poetry and adoration of the world.
So he poured his spirit into his most famous picture, L’Embarquement pour Cythère, in which graceful women, succumbing to male agitation, embark with their courtiers for the isle where Venus, it was said, had a temple, and had emerged, dripping with beauty, from the sea. Here the men almost outshine the ladies in the splendor of their dress; but what charmed the Academy was the overhanging grandeur of the trees, and the distant island’s snowy crest tinged with the sun and touching clouds. Watteau liked this subtle theme so well that he painted it in three variations. And Paris responded by choosing Watteau to carry the colors of the Regency, to celebrate the pleasures of life in a regime that would die as soon as it had spent its youth. He became by official title the peintre des fêtes galantes, the painter of urban lovers picnicking pastorally in a tranquil countryside, mingling Eros and Pan in the sole religion of the age. A breath of melancholy passes over these seemingly carefree scenes; these pliant sylphs could not be so tender if they had not known some suffering, or could not guess the brevity of adoration. This is the quality of Watteau—the delicate rendering of perfect moments that must pass.
He died too soon to savor his fame. After he was gone connoisseurs discovered his drawings, and some preferred them to his paintings, for here the chalk or pencil had achieved a finesse of detail in hands and hair, a subtlety of nuance in eyes and pose and flirting fan, that the oils had never quite revealed.73 The women of Paris became especially fond of themselves as seen in the dead artist’s longing; the beau monde dressed itself à la Watteau, walked and lounged à la Watteau, adorned its boudoirs and salons as these had been in the shapes and colors of his vision. The style Watteau entered into the design of furniture, into the rural motifs of decoration and the airy arabesques of rococo. Artists like Lancret and Pater took over Watteau’s specialty, and pictured fêtes champêtres, conversations galantes, musicales in the park, dances on the green, declarations of love’s eternity. Half the painting of France through the next one hundred years was a memory of Watteau. His influence continued through Boucher to Fragonard to Delacroix to Renoir, and the Impressionists found in his technique suggestive foreshadowings of their theories of light and shade and mood. He was, as the captivated Goncourts said, “the great poet of the eighteenth century.”74