DEATH AT AGE THIRTY-SEVEN

© Martin Eidelberg

Created July 2021

 


1. François Bernard Lépicié after Watteau, Antoine Watteaude l’Acad. Royale de Peinture, engraving, 1736.

 

Exactly three-hundred years ago, on July 18, 1721, Antoine Watteau died. Since then almost all writers—both his contemporaries and modern scholars—have remarked that he died young, when he was thirty-seven years old.  It is fitting that now, on this celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of his death, we should reconsider exactly how old he was at that time. One might think this is a futile inquiry since all texts state unequivocally, without hesitation, that he died when he was thirty-seven years old. But, as will be shown, that seemingly straight-forward assertion is incorrect.1

To keep this inquiry within reasonable bounds, I propose looking at only some of the many authors who have voiced an opinion on this subject. Beginning with the immemorable, quasi-rhapsodic text of the de Goncourt brothers, we read, ”Death had no remission to grant, for the satisfaction of this wish bore him away on 18 July 1721, at the age of thirty-seven.2 Louis Réau also confirmed he died when he was thirty-seven.3 So too, Adhémar wrote, “But he declined rapidly, and died at the age of thirty-seven years, in Gersaint’s arms, on 18 July 1721.”4 Brookner noted, “On, or about July 18th Watteau dies at the age of thirty-seven.”5 Donald Posner concluded his study on Watteau with the by-now familiar words: “On 18 July 1721 the artist died. He was thirty-seven years old.”6 In 2011 Pierre Rosenberg continued the myth, writing that Watteau died “at the age of thirty-seven.”7

The texts of other scholars could be presented here, regardless of whether they are French, English, American, or German. They all speak with one voice. If they mention Watteau’s age when he died, they proclaim with remarkable unanimity that he was thirty-seven years old when he died. It might seem pointless to challenge this well-established assertion were it not that the mathematics are wrong. Watteau was baptized on October 10, 1684, having been born that or the previous day. This  means that his thirty-seventh birthday would have fallen on October 10, 1721. Yet the artist died several months before that date, when he was only thirty-six and three quarter years old.

Discerning authors should have noted this discrepancy, but almost none did. There are a few exceptions. The Abbé Leclerc wrote that Watteau died in Nogent, and that his age was “about thirty-seven years.”8 So too, when Bernard Lépicié’s engraving of Watteau’s Self Portrait was issued in late 1736, the caption noted his membership in the Academy, his birth in Valenciennes, and his death in Nogent on July 18, 1721, when he was “Agé denviron 37.ãs.” (fig. 1).9 Ironically, in these instances ”about thirty-seven years,” although slightly vague, is nonetheless more correct than claiming that Watteau had lived a full thirty-seven years. Another notable exception, but several centuries later, is the excellent catalogue produced for the 1984 tricentenary celebration of Watteau’s birth. There it is written: “Jean-Antoine Watteau dies at Nogent-sur-Marne, not yet thirty-seven years old.”10 Amusingly, artificial intelligence—Google Assistant and Amazon-Alexa—has it right, unlike their human counterparts.

Why have Watteau scholars, past and present, fallen back on the customary formula that Watteau died at thirty-seven? How did this misstatement of fact originate? That is easily explained: it comes from Watteau’s early biographers, primarily Antoine de La Roque whose obituary notice appeared in the Mercure.11  La Roque wrote that the artist: “died of a lung disease, aged only thirty-seven years.”12  In turn, this was repeated by Jean de Jullienne, Dubois de Saint-Gelais, Dezallier d’Argenville, Edme Gersaint, and the Comte de Caylus, most of whom knew the artist personally but who also depended on previous accounts.13

When La Roque miscalculated Watteau’s age at his death, it may not have been mathematical sloppiness but purposeful intent. He was probably aware that Watteau had not reached his thirty-seventh birthday but thirty-seven was a magical number. As La Roque wrote, Watteau “died of a lung disease, aged only thirty-seven years, a fatal age for painting. The famous Raphael of Urbino and Eustache le Sueur died at that age.”14 It is true, Raphael died at age thirty-seven, but La Roque erred slightly in regard to Le Sueur. Raphael, in fact, died on his birthday. He was supposedly born on April 6, 1483, and died the same day thirty-seven years later. The coupling of Raphael’s and Watteau’s deaths became a trope that many subsequent authors continued. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Watteau’s name was not only coupled with Raphael’s, but also La Roque’s text was sometimes quoted because it was so poignant.15 Alternatively, Watteau’s early death was linked with the names of Mozart and Chopin.16 Neither musician was thirty-seven when he died (Mozart was thirty-five and Chopin was thirty-nine), but all three geniuses died in the flower of their years.

As it is almost engraved in stone, future writers will undoubtedly continue to write that Watteau died at age thirty-seven. This tradition, now three-hundred years old, will be difficult to overcome.

 

 

NOTES 

1 This essay was sparked by a conversation I recently had with Dr. Yuriko Jackall, Head of Curatorial and Curator of French Paintings at the Wallace Collection, London, and my colleague Lionel Sauvage.

2 Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French XVIII Century Painters, 1875 (London: 1948) 31.

3 Louis Réau, “Watteau,” In Louis Dimier, ed., Les Peintres du XVIII siècle, 2 vols. (Paris and Brussels: 1928), 1: 10.

4 Hélène Adhémar and René Huyghe, Watteau, sa vie—son oeuvre (Paris: 1950), 90: “. . . et meurt à l’âge de trent-sept ans.”

5 Anita Brookner, Watteau (London: 1967), 23.

6 Donald Posner, Antoine Watteau (Ithaca: 1984), 277.

7 Pierre Rosenberg, “Watteau by His Contemporaries,” in Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat, Watteau, the Drawings, exh cat. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2011), 13.

8 Josse Leclerc, in Pierre Rosenberg, ed., Vies anciennes de Watteau (Paris: 1984), 10.

9 For Lépicié’s engraving see Emile Dacier, Albert Vuaflart, and Jacques Hérold,  Jean de Jullienne et les graveurs de Watteau au XVIIIe siècle, 4 vols. (Paris: 1921-29), 3: cat 302; also Martin Eidelberg, “Assis auprès de toi, Watteau and Jullienne immortalized” (January 2011), http://watteauandhiscircle.org/Assis%20final.htm.

10 Margaret Morgan Grasselli and Pierre Rosenberg, eds., Watteau 1984-1721, exh. cat. (Washington, National Gallery of Art; Paris, Musée du Louvre; Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg), 26.

11 When Watteau’s death was announced in the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, on August  26, 1721, his age was mistakenly reported as thirty-five years.

12 See note 14 below.

13 For the texts written by Jullienne, Dubois de Saint Gelais, Gersaint, d’Argenville, and Caylus, see  Rosenberg, Vies anciennes de Watteau, 16, 22, 42, 49, 85 respectively.

14  Antoine de la Roque, in Rosenberg, Vies anciennes de Watteau, 5:“mort  d’une maladie de poumon, seulement âgé de 37 ans, âge fatal à la Peinture. Le fameux Raphael d’Urbin, et Eustache le Sueur sont morts à cet âge-la.” Le Sueur (1617-1655) was actually thirty-seven when he died, but his name was rarely intoned by subsequent writers, especially as his importance in the pantheon of art diminished.

15 Rosenberg, “Watteau by His Contemporaries,” 13; also Renaud Temperini, Watteau (Paris:2002), 20.

16 For example, see Gilbert W. Barker, Antoine Watteau (London, 1939), 199-202, for an extended discussion of the parallel between Watteau and both Mozart and Chopin.