NEW biographical details concerning Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) may never be forth-coming, though theories of his enigmatic personality and fascinating art will always find exponents. Our knowledge of Watteau is confined to a few authorities: the notes in D’Argenville’s Abrégé de la Vie des Plus Fameux Peintres; Catalogue Raisonné, by Gersaint; Julienne’s introduction to the Life of Watteau by Count de Caylus discovered by the Goncourts and published in their brilliant study of eighteenth-century art. Since then have appeared monographs, études, and articles by Cellier, Mollet, Hanover, Dohme, Muntz, Séailles, Claude Phillips, Charles Blanc, Virgile Joez, F. Staley, Téodor de Wyzewa, and Camille Mauclair. Mauclair is the latest and one of the most interesting commentators, his principal contribution being De Watteau à Whistler, a chapter of which has been afterward expanded into a compact little study entitled Watteau and translated from the French text by Mme. Simon Bussy, the wife of that intimate painter of twilight and poetic reverie, Simon Bussy, to whom the book is dedicated.
It is the thesis put forth and cleverly maintained by Mauclair that interests us more than his succinct notation of the painter’s life. It is not so novel as it is just and moderate in its application. The pathologic theory of genius has been over-worked. In literature nowadays “psychiatrists” rush in where critics fear to tread. Mahomet was an epilept; so was Napoleon. Flaubert died of epilepsy, said his friends; nevertheless, René Dumesnil has proved that his sudden decease was caused not by apoplexy but by hystero-neurasthenia. Eye strain played hob with the happiness of Carlyle, and an apostle of sweetness and light declared that Ibsen was a “degenerate” Ibsen, who led the humdrum exterior life of a healthy bourgeois. Lombroso has demonstrated to his own satisfaction that Dante’s mystic illumination was due to some brand of mental disorder. In fact, this self-styled psychologist mapped anew the topography of the human spirit. Few have escaped his fine-tooth-comb criticism except medi ocrity. Painters, poets, patriots, musicians, scientists, philosophers, novelists, statesmen, drama tists, all who ever participated in the Seven Arts, were damned as lunatics, decadents, criminals, and fools. It was a convenient inferno in which to dump the men who succeeded in the field wherein you were a failure. The height of the paradox was achieved when a silly nomenclature was devised to meet every vacillation of the human temperament. If you feared to cross the street you suffered from agoraphobia; if you didn’t fear to cross the street, that too was a very bad sign. If you painted like Monet, paralysis of the optical centre had set in but why continue ?
It is a pity that this theory of genius has been so thoroughly discredited, for it is a field which promises many harvestings; there is mad genius as there are stupid folk. Besides, normality doesn’t mean the commonplace. A normal man is a superior man. The degenerate man is the fellow of low instincts, rickety health, and a drunkard, criminal, or idiot. The comical part of the craze — which was short-lived, yet finds adherents among the half-baked in culture and the ignorant – is that it deliberately twisted the truth, making men of fine brain and high-strung temperament seem crazy or depraved, when the reverse is usually the case. Since the advent of Lombroso “brain-storms” are the possession of the privileged. Naturally your grocer, tailor, or politician may display many of the above symptoms, but no one studies them. They are not “geniuses.”
All this to assure you that when Camille Mauclair assumes that the malady from which Antoine Watteau died was also a determining factor in his art, the French critic is not aping some modem men of science who denounce the writings of Dostoievsky because he suffered from epileptic fits. But there is a happy mean in this effort to correlate mind and body. If we are what we think or what we eat and it is not necessary to subscribe to such a belief then the sickness of the body is reflected in the soul, or vice versa. Byron was a healthy man naturally, when he didn’t dissipate, and Byron’s poems are full of magnificent energy, though seldom in the key of optimism. The revolt, the passion, the scorn, were they all the result of his health ? Or of his liver? Or of his soul? Goethe, the imperial the myriad-minded Goethe, the apostle of culture, the model European man of the nineteenth century what of him? Serenity.. he is said to have attained, yet from the summit of eighty years he confessed to four weeks of happiness in a long lifetime. Nor was he with all his superb manhood free from neurotic disorders, neurotic and erotic. Shelley? Ah! he is a pronounced case for the specialists. Any man who could eat dry bread, drink water, and write such angelic poetry must have been quite mad. Admitted. Would there were more Shelleys. Browning is a fair specimen of genius and normality; as his wife illustrated an unstable nervous temperament allied to genius. George Borrow was a rover, a difficult man to keep as a friend, happy only when thinking of the gipsies and quarrelling when with them. Would Baudelaire’s magic verse and prose sound its faint, acrid, sinister music if the French poet had led a sensible life? Cruel question of the dilettante for whom the world, all its splendor, all its art, is but a spectacle. It is needless to continue, the list is too large; too large and too contradictory. The Variations of Genius would be as profound and as vast a book as Lord Acton’s projected History of Human Thought. The truth is that genius is the sacrificial goat of humanity; through some inexplicable transposition genius bears the burdens of mankind; afflicted by the burden of the flesh intensified many times, burdened with the affliction of the spirit, raised to a pitch abnormal, the unhappy man of genius is stoned because he staggers beneath the load of his sensitive temperament or wavers from the straight and narrow path usually blocked by bores too thick-headed and too obese to realise the flower-fringed abysses on either side of the road. And having sent genius in general among the goats, let us turn to consumptive genius in particular.
Watteau was a consumptive; he died of the disease. A consumptive genius! It is a hard saying. People of average health whose pulse-beat is normal in tempo luckily never realise the febrile velocity with which flows the blood in the veins of a sick man of genius. But there is a paradox in the case of Watteau, as there was in the case of Chopin, of Keats, of Robert Louis Steven-son. The painter of Valenciennes gave little sign of his malady on his joyous lyrical canvases. Keats sang of faëry landscapes and Chopin’s *as a virile spirit; the most cheerful writer under the sun was Stevenson, who even in his Pulvis et Umbra conjured up images of hope after a most pitiless arraignment of the universe and man. And here is the paradox. This quartet of genius suffered from and were slain by consumption. (Stevenson died directly of brain congestion; he was, however, a victim to lung trouble.) That the poets turn their sorrow into song is an axiom.
Yet these men met death, or what is worse, met life, with defiance or impassible fronts. And the world which loves the lilting rhythms of Chopin’s mazourkas seldom cares to peep behind the screen of notes for the anguish ambushed there. Watteau has painted the gayest scenes of pastoral elegance in a land out of time, a No-Man’s Land of blue skies, beautiful women,, gallant men, and lovely landscapes, while his life was haunted by thoughts of death.
The riddle is solved by Mauclair: These flights into the azure, these evocations of a country west of the sun and east of the moon, these graceful creatures of Watteau, the rich brocade of Chopin’s harmonies, the exquisite pictures of Keats, the youthful joy in far-away countries of Stevenson, all, all are so many stigmata of their terrible affliction. They sought by the magic of their art to create a realm of enchantment, a realm wherein their ailing bodies and wounded spirits might find peace and solace. This is the secret of Watteau, says Mauclair, which was not yielded up in the eighteenth century, not even to his followers, Pater, Lancret, Boucher, Fragonard, whose pagan gaiety and artificial spirit is far removed from the veiled melancholy of Watteau. As we see Chopin, a slender man, morbid, sickly, strike the martial chord in an unparalleled manner, Chopin the timid, the composer of the Heroic Polonaise, so Watteau, morbid, sickly, timid, slender, composes that masterpiece of delicate and decorative joyousness, The Embarkment for Cythera, which hangs in the Louvre (a gorgeous sketch, the final version, is at Potsdam in the collection of the German Emperor). In these works we find the aura of consumption.
None of Watteau’s contemporaries fathomed the meaning of his art: not Count de Caylus, not his successors, who all recognised the masterly draughtsman, the marvellous colourist, the composer of pastoral ballets, of matchless fêtes galantes, of conversations, of miniatures depicting camp life, and fanciful decorations in the true style of his times. But the melancholy poet that was in the man, his lyric pessimism, and his unassuaged thirst for the infinite these things they did not see. Caylus, who has left the only data of value, speaks of Watteau’s hatred of life, his aversion at times from the human face, his restlessness that caused him to seek new abodes Chopin was always dissatisfied with his lodgings and always changing them. The painter made friends in plenty, only to break with them because of some fancied slight. Chopin was of umbrageous nature, Liszt tells us. Watteau never married and never, as far as is known, had a love affair. He is an inspired painter of women. (Perhaps, because of his celibacy.) He loved to depict them in delicious poses, under waving trees in romantic parks or in the nude. A gallant artist, he was not a gallant man, He had the genius of friendship but not the talent for insuring its continuity. Like Arthur Rimbaud, he suffered from the nostalgia of the open road. He disappeared frequently. His whereabouts was a mystery to his friends. He did not care for money or for honours. He was elected without volition on his part as à member of the Academy. Yet he did not use this powerful lever to further his welfare. Silent, a man of continent speech, he never convinced his friends that his art was chaste; yet he never painted an indelicate stroke. His personages, all disillusionised, vaguely suffer, make love without desire disillusioned souls all. L’Indifférent, that young man in the Louvre who treads the earth with such light disdain, with such an airy expression of sweetness and ennui, that picture, Mauclair remarks, is the soul of Watteau. And, perhaps, spills his secret.
Mauclair does not like the coupling of Watteau’s name with those of Boucher, Pater, Lancret, De Troy, Coypel, or Vanloo. They imitated him as to externals; the spirit of him they could not en-snare. If Watteau stemmed artistically from Rubens, from Ruysdael, from Titian (or Tiepolo, as Kenyon Cox acutely hints) he is the father of a great school, the true French school, though his stock is Flemish. Turner knew him; so did Bonington. Delacroix understood him. So did Chardin, himself a solitary in his century. With-out Watteau’s initiative Monticelli might not be the Monticelli we know, while Claude Monet, Manet, Renoir are the genuine flowering of his experiments in the division of tones and the composition of luminous skies.
Mauclair smiles at Caylus for speaking of Watteau’s mannerisms, the mannerisms that proclaim his originality. Only your academic, colour-less painter lacks personal style and always paints like somebody he is not. Watteau’s art is peculiarly personal. Its peculiarity apart from its brilliancy and vivacity is, as Mauclair remarks, the contrast of cheerful colour and morbid ex pression.” Morbidezza is the precise phrase; Morbidezza may be found in Chopin’s art, in the very feverish moments when he seems brimming over with high spirits. Watteau was not a consumptive of the Pole’s type. He did not alternate between ecstasy and languor. He was cold, self-contained, suspicious, and inveterately hid the state of his health. He might have been cured, but he never reached Italy, and that far-off dream and his longing to realise it may have been the basis of his last manner those excursions into a gorgeous dreamland. He yearned for an impossible region. His visions on canvas are the shadowy sketches of this secret desire that burned him up. It may have been consumption and Mauclair makes out a strong case and it may have been the expression of a rare poetic temperament. Watteau was a poet of excessive sensibility as well as the contriver of dainty masques and ballets.
In literature one man at least has understood him, Walter Pater. Readers of his Imaginary Portraits need not be reminded of A Prince of Court Painters, that imaginative reconstruction of an almost obscure personality. “His words as he spoke of them [the paintings of Rubens] seemed full of a kind of rich sunset with some moving glory within it.” This was the Watteau who is summed by Pater (a distant kinsman, perhaps, of the Pater Watteau tutored) as a man who had been “a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world, that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.” Camille Mauclair eloquently ends his study with the confession that the mere utterance of Watteau’s name “suffices to evoke in men’s minds a memory of the melancholy that was his, arrayed in garments of azure and rose. Ah! crepuscular Psyche, whose smile is akin to tears!” Painter/Artist: Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)Painter/Artist: Antoine WatteauWatteau – The Embarkation For CytheraFrench Painters Of The Eighteenth Century, Wallace CollectionsWatteau, Jean-Antoine @ WebMuseum