Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was an influencial French painter, famous for his depictions of prosperous people enjoying themselves at the theatre, dances, hunts and in nature. Watteau himself was fascinated by costumes and fashion. Clothing is prominent in the many prints and chalk sketches on display.“Watteau” is an exhibition now at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem. There is much to interest anyone with a love for fashion and textiles at this exhibit.
During his life time, French dress was changing from a heavy and ornate style, espoused by King Louis XIV, to less restrictive and simpler wear. This trend was influenced by a revival of interest in ancient Rome and Greece—and in what 18th century Europeans thought the ancients wore. Silk, velvet and brocade were popular materials in 18th century France and a lighter material, a mix of silk and cotton called bombazine, was also coming into fashion.
Watteau’s passion for dress is clear from the dozens of etchings, prints and paintings on display. He drew peasants and soldiers, but also Persians (an official Persian envoy reached Paris in 1715), merchants and aristocrats, always highlighting their clothing. Watteau also drew fashion plates himself. These were commissioned, not by fashion houses, but by publishers who wanted to profit from the public’s eagerness for fashion.
A very clear idea of contemporary French style emerges: men in flared coats and breeches, women in long gowns with wide hips made using metal paniers or hoops. Both men and women’s clothing is beautifully embroidered, details which Watteau meticulously represents in his work. The patterns reminded me of many designs in TRC’s Van Gerwen collection of 16th to 18th century European silks and velvets.
Fortunately there is also a real 18th century woman’s dress on display at the exhibit, loaned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This is a beautiful cream-coloured silk dress, dated around 1760, worn for both day and evening wear. The dress is damask, with woven stripes and tendrils, and decorated in a multi-coloured pattern of flowers. There are deep box pleats from shoulder to floor at the back. Watteau painted this type of gown so often that this style is actually called pli Watteau.
In an age without mass communication, Watteau’s paintings and drawings helped to spread ideas of fashionable wear. Also on display are masks and costumes, futuristic and whimsical in turn, created specifically for the exhibit by fashion students of the Rietveld Academy. Watteau is still inspiring fashion today.
“Watteau” is on until 14 May at the Teylers Museum: www.teylersmuseum.nl
Shelley Anderson, 25th April 2017