(b. 1684, Valenciennes, d. 1721, Nogent-sur-Marne)
The greatest French painter of his period and one of the key figures of Rococo art. He was born at Valenciennes, which had passed to France from the Spanish Netherlands only six years before his birth, and he was regarded by contemporaries as a Flemish painter. There are indeed strong links with Flanders in his art, but it also has a sophistication that is quintessentially French.
He moved to Paris in about 1702 and c. 1703-07 he worked with Gillot, who stimulated his interest in theatrical costume and scenes from daily life. Soon afterwards he joined Claude Audran, Keeper of the Luxembourg Palace, and thus had access to Rubens's Marie de Médicis paintings, which were of enormous influence on him, even though Rubens's robustness was far removed from the fragile delicacy that characterized Watteau's art. Rubens was one of the prime inspirations for the type of picture with which Watteau is most associated - the fête galante, in which exquisitely dressed young people idle away their time in a dreamy, romantic, pastoral setting. The tradition of lovers in a parkland setting goes back via Giorgione to the medieval type known as the Garden of Love, but Watteau was the first painter to make the theme his own, and his individuality was recognized by his contemporaries.
In 1717 he submitted a characteristic work, The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (Louvre, Paris; a slightly later variant is in Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin), as his reception piece to the Academy, and owing to the difficulty of fitting him into recognized categories was received as a 'peintre de fêtes galantes', a title created expressly for him. He was, indeed, a highly independent artist, who did not readily submit to the will of patrons or officialdom, and the novelty and freshness of his work delivered French painting from the yoke of Italianate academicism. creating a truly 'Parisian' outlook that endured until the Neoclassicism of David. Watteau's world is a highly artificial one (apart from scenes of love he took his themes mainly from the theatre), but underlying the frivolity is a feeling of melancholy, reflecting the certain knowledge that all the pleasures of the flesh are transient. This poetic gravity distinguishes him from his imitators, and parallels are often drawn between Watteau's own life and character and the content of his paintings. He was notorious for his irritable and restless temperament and died early of tuberculosis, and it is felt that the constant reminder of his own mortality that his illness entailed 'infected' his pictures with a melancholic mood.
In 1719 he travelled to London, almost certainly to consult the celebrated physician Dr Richard Mead, but the hard English winter worsened his condition. His early death came when he may have been making a new departure in his art, for his last important work combines something of the straightforward naturalism of his early pictures in the Flemish tradition with the exquisite sensitivity of his fêtes galantes: it is a shop sign painted for the picture dealer Edmé Gersaint and known as L' Enseigne de Gersaint (Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 1721 ).
Watteau was careless in matters of material technique and many of his paintings are in consequence in a poor state of preservation. A complete picture of his genius depends all the more, then, on his numerous superb drawings, many of them scintillating studies from the life. He collected his drawings into large bound volumes and used these books as a reference source for his paintings (the same figure often appears in more than one picture).
In spite of his difficult temperament, Watteau had many loyal friends and supporters who recognized his genius, and although his reputation suffered with the Revolution and the growth of Neoclassicism, he always had distinguished admirers. It is perhaps as a colourist that he has had the most profound influence. His method of juxtaposing flecks of colour on the canvas was carried further by Delacroix and later reduced to a science by Seurat and the Neo-Impressionists. Watteau's principal, but much inferior, followers were Lancret and Pater. He also had a nephew and a great-nephew (father and son) who worked more-or-less in his manner. They are both known as 'Watteau de Lille' after their main place of work - Louis-Joseph Watteau (1731-98) and François-Louis-Joseph Watteau (1758-1823).