Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721).
A French rococo artist whose charming and graceful paintings show his
interest in theater and ballet, Antoine Watteau is probably best know for
his fetes galantes. These romantic and idealized scenes depict elaborately
costumed ladies and gentlemen at play in fanciful outdoor settings.
Jean-Antoine Watteau was born on Oct. 10, 1684, in
Valenciennes, France. In 1702 he traveled to Paris, where he supported
himself by turning out religious pictures and copying the works of popular
Dutch artists. In 1704 he began studying with Claude Gillot. Gillot, who
designed and executed scenery for the stage, passed on to Watteau his love
of the Italian theater and the characters from the commedia dell'arte.
In 1708 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 1709–10
Watteau returned to Valenciennes, where he executed a series of military
scenes. In the years 1710–12 he painted the first of three versions
of the myth of 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.
Watteau returned to Paris and in 1715 was befriended by
Pierre Crozat, a rich financier and art collector who owned a splendid
collection of Flemish and Italian paintings and who admired Watteau's
paintings. Watteau lived for a time in the residence of Crozat, but after
a while he left to live in seclusion. This began the period of his major
paintings, including the fetes galantes.
By 1719 Watteau was suffering from tuberculosis. That
year he traveled to London to see a noted physician, Richard Mead, for whom
he painted The Italian Comedians. In 1720 he returned to Paris
and stayed with his friend E.F. Gersaint, an art dealer. For him he did
Enseigne de Gersaint,
a painting of the interior of Gersaint's shop intended for use as a
signboard. Watteau's health continued to fail, and he moved to
Nogent-sur-Marne just east of Paris, where he died on July 18, 1721.
The paintings of Watteau and his fellow rococo painters
fell from favor in the late 1700s. His work was not
fully appreciated again until the mid-1800s.