The most brilliant and original oil paintings of the eighteenth century, Antoine Watteau paintings(1684–1721) had an impact on the development of Rococo art in France and throughout Europe lasting well beyond his lifetime. Living only thirty-six years, and plagued by frequent illness, Watteau nonetheless rose from an obscure provincial background to achieve fame in the French capital during the Regency of the duc d’Orléans. Watteau paintings feature figures in aristocratic and theatrical dress in lush imaginary landscapes. Their amorous and wistful encounters create a mood but do not employ narrative in the traditional sense. During Watteau’s lifetime, a new term, fête galante, was coined to describe them. Watteau was also a gifted draftsman whose sparkling chalk sheets capture subtle nuances of deportment and expression.
Born at Valenciennes, 1684, died near Paris, 1721. Young Watteau was a very clever boy, constantly sketching, and as quite a youth was taken to the studio of Gerin, who gave him his first education. Watteau received, however, no sympathy at home, but, on the contrary, was urged to give up draughtsmanship.
Watteau therefore left Valenciennes, and tramped to Paris, where he arrived without a friend or a penny, and nearly starved. At first Watteau commenced as a sign-board painter, but in 1703 was fortunate enough to be received into the studio of Gillot, with whom Watteau remained for five years, and then became the assistant of Audran, one of the first artists of his day, and the keeper of the Luxembourg. Audran discovered his skill, but was inclined to keep him in his studio as his pupil and assistant, and to prevent him engaging in original work. Watteau, however, painted a small military painting, called Le Depart, which painting was sold to a dealer in Paris. From the funds obtained by this sale, Watteau revisited his parents, but quickly returned to Paris. Watteau then came under the notice of M. de Crozat, who introduced him to many artists, gave him the free run of his house and gallery, and encouraged him.
During this time Watteau produced some of his best paintings, and was received by the Academy under the title of Le Peintre des Fetes Galantes in 1717, where his position was at once secured. It was at this time that Watteau produced his great painting, The Embarkment for Cythera, which created a great sensation in Paris, and was the beginning of quite a new epoch in art. Watteau was always more or less in poor health, and two years after painting his great painting came over to London to consult Dr. Meade, for whom he painted two important oil paintings.
Watteau then returned to Paris, and executed the great sign- board painting designed for his friend Gersaint, but, his health failing in Paris, he had to leave for a house which he had obtained at Nogent-sur-Marne. It was there soon after that Watteau died. Watteau produced a great number of oil paintings, exquisite in colour, movement, composition, and in a peculiar sense of flutter which distinguishes his paintings.
Watteau was also a superb draughtsman and left behind him a number of drawings bull of life and piquancy. He was an engraver, responsible for several etchings. Watteau paintings stand quite alone in art, representing the gay and vivacious life of the period, with ideal forms and circumstances, and picturing the frivolity of his epoch extravagantly no doubt, but with great beauty and extraordinary charm. His finest paintings are those in Berlin, London, (the Wallace Collection), Paris (the Case Collection), Potsdam (the two collections at Sans Souci and the New Palace), and the Conde Museum at Chantilly. Besides these, there are great paintings by him at Brunswick, Cassel, Brussels, St. Petersburgh, Nantes, Orleans, Stockholm, Dresden, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. The chief artists of his school were Lancret and Pater, and their paintings approached more nearly than any others to the paintings of Watteau himself.