Watteau was a French painter whose brief career spurred the revival of
interest in color and movement, and revitalized the waning
Baroque idiom, which eventually became
Rococo. Jean Antoine Watteau is credited
with inventing the genre of fêtes galantes: scenes of bucolic and
idyllic charm, suffused with an air of theatricality. Some of his best
known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian comedy and ballet.
Watteau was born in Valenciennes in October of 1684. Jean Antoine Watteau’s birth, is actually the date he was baptized at the church of St. Jacques in Valenciennes. He was the son of Jean-Philippe Watteau, master roofer and carpenter, who knew how to read and write, and was officially registered as a bourgeois. Jean Antoine Watteau’s three brothers continued his father’s enterprise. It is unknown whether his parents encouraged his artistic vocation. None the less they allowed the boy, on turning fifteen, to get some instruction from Jacques-Albert Gérin, the correct, mediocre official painter of Valenciennes.
Jean Antoine Watteau showed artistic ability at a young age, his early drawings were of the local townspeople, shop keepers, and street clowns in Valenciennes. Like other young artists, Jean Antoine Watteau went to Paris in 1702 with the hope of entering a studio where he could refine his art.
Jean Antoine Watteau worked as a second rate painter before becoming acquainted with Claude Gillot. Gillot was a set designer for the stage and it was Gillot who exposed Watteau to the Commedia Dell'arte. These theatrical themes appear throughout Watteau's artwork and can clearly be seen in pieces such as " Le Mezzetin", shown here.
In 1708 Jean Antoine Watteau began working with Claude Audran, who had the care of the treasures at the Luxembourg Palace. This collection included a group of scenes from the life of Marie de' Medici painted in the early 1600s by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens's influence can also be seen in Watteau's work. In about 1708 Jean Antoine Watteau's small and human battle paintings attracted the attention of perceptive dealers, collectors, and well-known imitators of Rubens.
Jean Antoine Watteau was invited by the financier Crozat to live and work in his home filled with Venetian and Flemish paintings and drawings and soon developed a new type of subject: paintings of elegant ladies and gentlemen enjoying themselves in magnificent landscapes, the fêtes galantes.
In 1709 Jean Antoine 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, rather than receiving the one-year stay in Rome for which he had applied, he was accepted as a full member of the Academy. Jean Antoine Watteau took five years to deliver the required "reception piece," but it was one of his masterpieces. "The Pilgrimage to Cythera",(shown here) also called the Embarkation for Cythera. the island of love for which pilgrims embark but never arrive. The paintings represented impossible dreams, the revenge of madness on reason and of freedom on moral rules.
Interestingly, while Watteau's paintings seem to epitomize the aristocratic elegance of the Régence (though he actually lived most of his short life under the oppressive climate of Louis XIV's later reign), he never had aristocratic patrons. His buyers were bourgeois such as bankers and dealers. Although his mature paintings seem to be so many depictions of frivolous fêtes galantes, they in fact display a sober melancholy, a sense of the ultimate futility of life, that makes Jean Antoine Watteau, among 18th century painters, one of the closest to modern sensibilities. His many imitators, such as Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater, borrowed his themes but could not capture his spirit.
The tinge of melancholy in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s work is matched by his life. A lifelong sufferer from tuberculosis he went to London in 1719 partly in hopes that the famous Dr. Mead might cure his consumption, partly, perhaps from desire to extend his sphere of action. Jean Antoine Watteau was already, however, fatally ill. On his return to France in 1720, Jean Antoine Watteau painted his last great work, depicting the interior of the shop of his art-dealer friend Gersaint, drawn from nature and intended as a signboard, but in fact the most classical and most perfectly composed of his paintings "L'Enseigne de Gersaint".
As his death approached Jean-Antoine Watteau was persuaded by the abbot of Carreau Abby to destroy a large number of his more erotic paintings. Jean Antoine Watteau never had his own house and moved from one friend, or patron, to another. Watteau died in Gersaint’s house on 18 July 1721. He was 37. During his 15-year artistic career, Jean Antoine Watteau tacked a wide variety of genres, subjects and techniques: tapestry cartoons and ceiling decorations, wainscot, fans and harpsichord panels, also allegoric and satirical pictures, genre painting, military, theatrical and religious scenes, landscapes and rustic subjects, character heads and portraits.
Jean Antoine Watteau gave his full measure, however, in his fêtes galantes. By the specificity he lent this theme, which is now strikingly associated with his name, Jean Antoine Watteau succeeded in establishing it as a distinct genre. These fêtes galantes entirely crystallize the spirit of his painting. Essentially aristocratic in conception, Watteau’s paintings fell into disfavor during the Revolution, and it was not until the end of the 19th century that they regained popularity. Jean Antoine Watteau is now regarded as a forerunner of the Impressionists in his handling of color and study of nature.