Although more famous for the highly finished and elegant fêtes galantes that he painted, a genre which he invented and popularized, Watteau also painted a small number of more traditional subject pictures, of historical, allegorical and even erotic themes. The Nymphe de Fontaine fuses together many of the best of all of the artist's essays in these differing areas, combining the grande manière of history painting with the gentle eroticism of the French rococo.
The Nymphe de Fontaine would appear to have once formed part of a series of canvases that comprised a decorative scheme for a fashionable Paris salon. Watteau is recorded as having painted a number of such paintings, and in fact had specialized in the production of canvases for interior schemes early in his career, painting figures to populate the elaborate arabesques and singeries that were the specialty of Charles Audran III in whose studio the young artist worked. He continued to take commissions for such paintings even after he became an independent artist in circa 1708; Watteau furnished a set of eight such panels for the hôtel particulier of the Marquis de Nointel, apparently commissioned soon after he acquired the property in 1705 (of these only two are extant: La Faune and L'Enjoleur, both private collection).1 Undoubtedly such projects furnished the young artist with a needed source of income and had the added advantage of exposing his work to a fashionable audience of potential clients.
However, Watteau did not stop painting such pictures even after he achieved international acclaim. The most important of these dating from the artist's maturity was the set of four canvases representing the seasons that he painted for the connoisseur and collector Pierre Crozat for his elegant townhouse on the rue de Richelieu. The only surviving painting of that group is the magnificent Summer (Ceres) now in the National Gallery, Washington, DC. That painting depicts the goddess Ceres seated on a cloud, holding a sickle and surrounded by the symbols of the zodiac appropriate for the season. The painting exhibits Watteau's interest in earlier artists—it is an amalgam of the influence of Rubens and Veronese, whose works Watteau would have known from Crozat's own collection. The exact dating of the commission remains unclear, but it seems reasonable to date it to circa 1715/16 based on stylistic as well as other considerations.2 Whatever the exact date of the painting, the Ceres demonstrates Watteau's unquestionable mastery of the formal language of grand history painting.
Likewise, The Nymphe de Fontaine is a painting which also exhibits Watteau's skill in figure painting. It depicts a young semi-nude nymph or goddess, holding an urn from which spills the source of the river of which she is tutelary deity. The artist's absolute mastery of drawing is evident throughout the figure, in the beautifully achieved face of the nymph, and in her skillfully and elegantly articulated hands. The skin tones are rendered in pink and pearlescent tones which add an airy weight to the figure itself. Equally beautiful is the landscape and sky beyond the goddess, which is painted in fluid and loose brushstrokes. It is clearly from about the same time as the Ceres, and demonstrates many of the same qualities. This has lead to some amount of scholarly discussion regarding the dating of the Nymphe de Fontaine. Some, such as Mathey, have suggested a dating to early in Watteau's independent career, circa 1711/12, while others have suggested a slightly later dating. These include Rosenberg and Camesasca, and most recently Temerini, who date it to circa 1716 and 1715/16 respectively. This would date it to just at the time Watteau painted the Crozat Ceres. Roland Michel, however, prefers a dating of 1717-18, placing the Nymphe de Fontaine slightly later than this. This dating seems quite likely, as the picture clearly shows the same assurance of handling as the Ceres, and similar artistic influences, particularly that of Rubens.
1. See Watteau exhibition catalogue, 1984, p. 249; for a lengthy discussion of the panels see J. Cailleaux, "Decorations by Antoine Watteau for the Hotel de Nointel," in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 103, no. 696 (March 1961, pp. i-v), as well as M. Eidelberg, "Watteau and Audran at the Hotel de Nointel," in Apollo, January 2002, vol CLV, no. 479, pp. 10-16.
2 See P. Rosenberg in Watteau, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1984, pp. 325-26, no. 35. Rosenberg notes that there were early records that the designs for the Crozat series were originated by Charles de la Fosse who passed them on at his death in 1716 to the younger artist.
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