The biography of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 - 1721)

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 –1721) was a French painter probably best known for his fêtes galantes. These romantic and idealized scenes depict elaborately costumed ladies and gentlemen at play in fanciful outdoor settings. He was founder and leader of the school usually known as that of the painters of Les Fêtes Galantes, whose brief career spurred the revival of interest in colour and movement (in the tradition of Correggio and Rubens), and revitalized the waning Baroque idiom, which eventually became known as Rococo.

Watteau was born October 10, 1684 in the Flemish town of Valenciennes, which had just been annexed by the French king Louis XIV from the Spanish Netherlands only six years before his birth, and he was regarded by contemporaries as a Flemish painter. There are indeed strong links with Flanders in his art. His father was a master tiler of Flemish descent.

Showing an early interest in painting, he was apprenticed to Jacques-Albert Gérin, a local painter. Watteau moved to Paris in about 1702. There he found employment in a workshop at Pont Notre-Dame, making copies of popular genre paintings in the Flemish and Dutch tradition.

In 1703 he was employed as an assistant by the painter Claude Gillot, who stimulated his interest in theatrical costume and scenes from daily life. In Gillot’s studio Watteau became acquainted with the characters of the commedia dell’arte. Soon afterwards he moved to the workshop of Claude Audran III, an interior decorator, the curator of the Palais du Luxembourg, where Watteau was able to see the magnificent series of canvases painted by Peter Paul Rubens for Queen Marie de Medici.

In 1709 Watteau tried to obtain the Prix de Rome and was rejected by the Academy. In 1712 he tried again and was considered so good that he was accepted as a full member of the Academy. In 1717 he submitted a characteristic work, The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (Louvre, Paris; a slightly later variant is in Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin).

In spite of his difficult temperament, Watteau had many loyal friends and supporters who recognized his genius. His many imitators, such as Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater, borrowed his themes but could not capture his spirit.

Among his most famous paintings, beside the two versions of the Pilgrimage to Cythera, are Pierrot (long identified as "Gilles"), Fêtes Vénitiennes, Love in the Italian Theater, Love in the French Theater, “Voulez-vous triompher des belles?” and Mezzetin. The subject of his hallmark painting, Pierrot or Gilles, with his slowly fading smile, seems a confused actor who appears to have forgotten his lines.

He died near Paris, July 18, 1721. His early death came when he may have been making a new departure in his art, for his last important work combines something of the straightforward naturalism of his early pictures in the Flemish tradition with the exquisite sensitivity of his fêtes galantes: it is a shop sign painted for the picture dealer Edmé Gersaint and known as L’Enseigne de Gersaint (Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 1721).