The Artist Antoine Watteau

Born in 1684, the French painter Antoine Watteau is best known his fete galantes paintings, a genre he virtually invented depicting scenes of charming outdoor gatherings which figured into the Rococo art movement. Watteau specialized in painting Italian comic theatre and ballet. His influences included both Correggio and Rubens and some of his most famed works are Pilgrimage on the Isle of Cythera (1717) and Pierrot (1718-1719).

Watteau was the son of a master tiler and was born in Valenciennes, France. Early apprenticed to Jacques-Albert Gerin, Watteau left to expand his study of art in Paris in 1702. While in Paris, Watteau gained artistic experience by copying important genre paintings in a Pont Notre-Dame shop. This period allowed him to develop his characteristic sketching techniques. In 1703 Watteau became an assistant to the painter Claude Gillot. While working for Gillot, Watteau fell under the influence of the Commedia dell’art characters which he would frequently paint.

Watteau began to draw more elegant scenes while assisting in the workshop of Claude Audran III who specialized in interior decoration. Through Audran, Watteau became acquainted with the works of Peter Paul Rubens which would profoundly affect the artist’s subsequent works. Although Watteau was denied the Prix de Rome in 1709, he was admitted as a full Academy member in 1712 based on the extraordinary praise for his work. Five years later Watteau would complete his masterpiece, Pilgrimage to Cythera.

Throughout most of his career, Watteau’s work, while characteristically elegant, was purchased less by aristocrats and more by bankers and prosperous tradesmen. The artist, whose health had always been described as precarious, died in 1721 at the age of thirty-six. Historians believe the cause of death might have been due to complications of tuberculosis. In the previous year he had traveled to London and the damp climate may have triggered his illness.

Critical response to Watteau’s work was not always favorable during the artist’s lifetime, but later art critics revere him as one of the few eighteenth-century artists with modern characteristics. While his fetes galantes paintings appear frivolous or depict pastoral scenes, they usually contain an underlying seriousness that appears modern and adds meaningful depth to the artist’s sensibilities. The actor of Pierrot, for instance, is shown in the painting in a serious mood despite his costume and position in the Commedia dell’arte. Despite his short life, Watteau greatly influenced both painting and the decorative arts—even the fashion of the Victorian period. His work may also have influenced later Impressionist painters.