JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU'S YOUTH
Jean-Antoine Watteau was born on October 10, 1684 in the Flemish city of Valenciennes, which had just been annexed by the French king Louis XIV. His father was a master tiler. Showing an early interest in painting, he was apprenticed to Jacques-Albert Gérin, a local painter. Having little to learn from Gérin, Watteau left for Paris in about 1702. There he found employment in a workshop at Pont Notre-Dame, making copies of popular genre paintings in the Flemish-Dutch tradition.
JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU AS AN ARTIST
In 1703, he was employed as an assistant by the painter Claude Gillot. In his studio he took contact with the characters of the commedia dell'arte, a favorite subject of Gillot's, and one that would become one of Watteau's lifelong passions. Afterwards he moved to the workshop of Claude Audran III, an interior decorator, where he learned to imbue his drawing with the consummate elegance that has come to characterize it. Audran was 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 Maria de Medici. The Flemish painter would become one of his major influences, together with the Venetian masters he would later study in the collection of his patron and friend, the banker Pierre Crozat.
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, instead of getting the one-year stay in Rome he was aiming for, he was accepted as a full member of the Academy. He took five years to deliver the required "reception piece", but it was one of his masterpieces, the Pilgrimage to Cythera, also called the Embarkation for Cythera (many commentators, however, note that it depicts in fact a departure from the island of Cythera, the birthplace of Venus, being thus a sign of the brevity of love).
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, and a sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of life, that make him, among 18th century painters, one of the closest to modern sensibilities. In this he is far superior to his many imitators, like Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater, who borrowed his themes but couldn't capture his spirit.
Among his most famous paintings are Pilgrimage to Cythera (two versions), Pierrot (long identified as "Gilles"), Fêtes venitiennes, Love in the Italian Theater, Love in the French Theater, "Voulez-vous triompher des belles?", Mezzetin and his last masterpiece, painted almost at his deathbed, the Shop-sign of Gersaint.
JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU'S DEATH
Watteau used to alarm his friends by the carelessness he displayed about his future and his financial security. He seemed to foresee that he wouldn't live for long. In 1720, becoming ill, he moved to England for a while, looking for a better climate, but returned in worse health. He died in Nogent-sur-Marne on July 18, 1721, at the age of 37.
The Watteau dress, a long, sacklike dress with loose pleats hanging from the shoulder at the back, similar to those worn by many of the women is his paintings, is named after him.