Jean-Antoine Watteau Biography

ArtHearty Staff Nov 1, 2018
One of the finest painters of the Rococo Period, his works greatly influenced later artists like Chardin, Boucher, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Picasso. Here is a brief biography of Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Jean-Antoine Watteau was perhaps the definitive painter of the Rococo Age. He was born in 1684 in Valenciennes―once a part of Flanders, and since a few years prior to Watteau's birth, the newly annexed property of the French king Lous XIV.
Watteau had an unhappy childhood, partly due to his own difficult temperament and partly due to his father, an equally difficult carpenter who had no sympathy for his son's artistic inclinations. His father allowed Watteau to be apprenticed to the town painter Jacques-Albert Gerin, but made things tough by cutting off all monetary assistance.
In 1702, when he was eighteen, Watteau left home and went to Paris hoping to find a more congenial atmosphere. The Parisian art scene was very exciting at the time, with attention shifting from antiquity to reality and the bold, vividly-colored works of Peter Paul Rubens receiving more admiration than the subdued ones of Nicolas Poussin.
Watteau, talented; ambitious, hoped to make a mark in this city. He found out, dreaming artistic was one thing and living the artistic reality was another. He worked for a Pont Notre-Dame workshop, copying popular Dutch and Flemish paintings. It was hard work for less pay and he starved. Never strong to begin with, his hardships greatly ruined his health.
His situation improved in 1703, when he became acquainted with the stage designer Claude Gillot, who was famous for his paintings of the Italian actors of the commedia dell'Arte. Gillot saw potential in the young Watteau and offered him an apprentice position at his studio.
The two men ultimately didn't get along; but during his time in Gillot's studio, Watteau received intensive training in painting stage scenery, the effects of which can be seen in a majority of his later works.
In most of these, you get the impression of viewing a drama setting, and only Watteau's delicacy of touch manages to make it less stage-like than that of Hogarth, for example. The characters in his works don't seem all that conscious of the audience unless they are looking at you directly and smiling as if to take a bow for the performance.
After leaving Gillot's studio, Watteau found another apprentice position, this time with the arabesque painter, Claude Audran. Aside from being a decorator, he famously made the drawings for the ceiling decorations of the suite belonging to the 13 year old Duchess of Burgundy, who was the fiancée of the French king's eldest grandson, Audran.
He was the overseer of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, and Watteau spent a lot of his time there. The wild environs of the palace― before the establishment of the famous Luxembourg Gardens―inspired Watteau to turn to landscape painting. He fell in love with the genre, and his paintings appear to have a lingering touch of the Luxembourg wilds in them.
Living at the Luxembourg Palace provided Watteau with easy access to the royal picture gallery. Here, he was able to study Peter Paul Rubens's famous painting series on the life of Queen Maria de Medici in entirety.
The realism of Rubens paintings greatly influenced Watteau's work. Although Watteau's paintings are much smaller in size and consist of a dreamy and rather ethereal atmosphere, the people he painted were very much real. His most well-known paintings depict people from the rich, rather decadent set, that spent their days in the aimless pursuit of pleasure.
They play, they walk in gardens, they have parties, they court one another. They are never depicted to be working. Watteau's opinion of these people is not noted. However, there always seems to be a melancholic and empty touch to all the gaiety, like the aristocratic players are deceiving themselves and the viewer.
They were depicted in a way almost as if to say that their existence―for all their obvious riches, their attractive movements, and their shimmering and exquisitely-colored silk clothes―is ultimately devoid of any real meaning.
Perhaps it is not surprising that it was not this aristocratic set, but the bourgeois―the people aspiring for the frivolous lifestyle of the rich and famous―that mainly bought these paintings.
After Luxembourg, Watteau went back to Paris in 1709, his hopes pinned on winning the Prix de Rome and proceeding to Italy to study art more seriously. However, that didn't come about. It took a second attempt, in 1712, for him to win the coveted prize.
This time, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was so impressed with him that they awarded him a full membership as the Painter of Fetes Galantes, instead of the much hoped for one year stint in Rome.
As a new member, he was supposed to present the academy with a 'reception piece', but Watteau took five years to deliver the work. This is the one that he is most known for, the famous and questionably titled 'Embarquement pour l'Ile de Cythere' (Pilgrimage to Cythera).
People debate on whether the lovers are on their way to Cythera, the mythological Island birthplace of Venus (signifying the beginning of love), or are leaving it (signifying the end of love).
In the meantime, he established a close friendship with the rich banker and art collector, Pierre Crozat, who owned a magnificent collection of Venetian art that included the works of Titian and Veronese. These provided another positive influence on Watteau's artistic development.
With full membership of the academy, acquaintance with important people, and a growing interest in his works, Watteau seemed poised for greater things. However these were not to come. Around 1717, he contracted tuberculosis, and this illness was another reason for the sadness apparent in his works.
For a while he attempted to fight back, even moving to England in 1720 in the hope that the climate would suit him. With his health rapidly failing, he returned to France and took up quiet country living and religion. Always temperamental and difficult, Watteau grew mellow and considerate.
He had kicked his apprentice, Jean-Baptiste Pater, out for copying his style, which would have meant a permanent exile a few years earlier, but Watteau decided to give the young man a chance and called him back. He never achieved Watteau's success, but remains in art history as the person that received instruction from Watteau in his very last week.
On 18 July 1721, in the Nogent-sur-Marne country house of his friend, Gersaint, Watteau succumbed to the disease. He was only 37 at the time and left behind some twenty thousand paintings and a considerable body of drawings.
His works greatly influenced later artists like Chardin, Boucher, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Picasso.
Famous paintings by Antoine Watteau:
  • Gilles and his Family (1716; Wallace Collection, London)
  • Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717; Louvre Museum, Paris)
  • The Delicate Musician (1717; Louvre Museum, Paris)