French rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau created the ‘Fête Galante’ painting genre that depicted the lush outdoor parties from the 18th century. Magnificent scenes portraying societal festivities with costumed ladies and elegant gentlemen reflected Watteau’s great love for the theater and ballet.
Jean-Antoine Watteau was born on October 10, 1684, in Valenciennes, France. He was the son of Michele, née Lordenois, and Jean-Philippe Watteau, master roofer and carpenter. At fifteen, he was apprenticed to Jacques-Albert Gérin, official painter of Valenciennes who worked in a seventeenth-century Mannerist style. After the death of Gérin in 1702, Watteau trekked to Paris without a dime in his pocket and earned a living painting religious pictures and copying the works of popular Dutch artists.
Fortune smiled on the artist when he met Claude Gillot, a painter who specialized in decorating theatres. Watteau studied in Gillot’s studio from 1704-1708. Gillot’s paintings of theatrical life inspired and influenced some of Watteau’s finest paintings such as ‘Love in the Italian Theatre’ and ‘Love in the French Theatre’. His subjects, often including figures from the commedia dell'arte, reflected his great appreciation for the theater. He then became the assistant of Claude Audran, the most famous decorator in Paris, but Audran discouraged Watteau from spending time creating original works, despite his show for great potential.
In 1709-10, Jean-Antoine Watteau returned to Valenciennes, where he created a series of paintings with regard to military life. When the series was finished, he painted the first of three versions of the myth of Cythera, the island of love for which pilgrims would embark but never arrive. ‘The Embarkment for Cythera’ is a magnificent painting well recognized in the art world.
A few years later, the artist’s works caught the eye of rich financier Pierre Crozat. He owned a magnificent collection of Flemish and Italian paintings and was anxious to meet Watteau. They met upon the artist’s return to Paris in 1715. Crozat invited him to live and work at his home. During his stay, he produced some of his best works, including ‘Le Peintre des Fêtes Galantes’ which got him accepted to the Royal Academy in 1717.
Although Watteau became very ill with tuberculosis in 1719, he continued to create. He painted a series of romantic fantasies on theatrical subjects. He traveled to England to consult with Queen Anne's doctor but died two years later in 1721 in the country-side near Paris. Jean-Antoine Watteau’s delicate and graceful imagery and harmonious backgrounds communicate on canvas a poetic freedom and emotional warmth that will be forever associated with his name.