Jean-Antoine Watteau was born October 1684 in Valenciennes, northern France. He moved to Paris at age 18, in 1702. In Paris, he worked as assistant to Claude Gillot, a painter and theatrical designer, from 1704-1707 or 1708.
Working with Gillot, Watteau developed a love for the theatre and street fairs, paticularly in the Commedia dell'Arte or Italian Comendy. This is why he often painted this theme.
Watteau’s next employer (1708-1709), Claude Audran, was a decorative artist who was also in charge of the royal art collection at the Luxembourg Palace.
This was a very good thing for Watteau. In the 18th century, it was important for new artists and art students to find ways of being exposed to private art collections, as there wasn’t very much art on public display in art galleries like there is now.
Watteau was enchanted by Rubens’ Marie de Medici series of paintings at Luxembourg Palace. It inspired him to start painting in rich colours as Rubens had.
For painters in the 18th century, the subject of any given painting was generally decided by the person paying for the artwork. Jean-Antoine Watteau took it upon himself to decide what his own painting subjects were going to be and he was able to be a success nonetheless.
He was one of the first painters to be able to do so.
In 1712, Watteau applied to be a member of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the conservative and traditional official French organisation that controlled art.
He was accepted.
The next step of the process was that he had to submit a reception piece of a subject of the Academy’s choice, but they made the unusual exception for him that he could pick the subject himself.
When they finally received his reception piece 5 years later, in 1717, it didn’t fit into any of the traditional categories, so they accepted it as an entry in a new category of its own, the fete galante.
Fete galante became the theme he would paint for most of the rest of his career.
The term fete galante, translated literally, means gallant party and generally depicted elegant aristocratic couples frolicking in woods and parks, dancing, talking, flirting, and serenading each other. Watteau often included a bit of fantasy to the scene, like a statue turning to listen to the lovers’ conversations.
Watteau and his fetes galantes were probably the main instigators of rococo. (See Fragonard)
Also characteristic of Watteau’s fetes galantes, is that, in spite of this bucolic setting, the people in his paintings always tend to seem a bit sad and alone, as if they expect their pleasures to be fleeting.
It’s not certain if this was purposeful on the part of Watteau, or if it were due to his particular and unusual way of working. To prepare for his paintings, he would make individual sketches of each of his characters, and then paint off these for the final scene.
In 1721, Jean-Antoine Watteau died of tuberculosis at age 37; he had contracted the disease about four years earlier.
There are several of Watteau’s works on display on the second floor of the Sully wing in the Louvre Museum.
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