Jean Antoine Watteau is one of the most impressive and original artists of the 18th century. His impact on the development of Rococo and French art, is fundamental and lasting to this day. Despite living only 36 years due to frequent illness, Watteau achieved fame in the French capital, even though he grew up in the province. The artist proved to be skilled in many areas and impressed his peers with his paintings and his innovations.
Jean Antoine Watteau was born in 1684 in Valenciennes. He was the son of a roofer and soon after he left his hometown and arrived in Paris, he was employed in the mass production of crude copies of devotional paintings. In 1705, he started working for Claude Gillot (1673–1722), who was a comic scene artist. Gillot introduced Watteau to Claude Audran III, a famous interior decorator of the time.
Under the influence of these two great artists, Watteau developed his style. His paintings include aristocratic figures in theatrical dresses placed in luxuriant, imaginary landscapes. He incorporated the theatrical style and airy designs that dominated the interior design.
With the backing of Charles de la Fosse, a fellow admirer of Rubens and the Venetian school, Watteau joined The French Academy in Rome in 1712, however his unconventional style didn’t fit any of the academy’s categories. Finally, the academy accepted his piece, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, for submission, in 1717. The painting depicted amorous couples on the mythical island of Cythera, in various stages of their metaphoric “journey” of love.
Watteau continued his education by copying works of Ruben and Italian artists. His imaginary sets were inspired by the Italian countryside. Landscape with an Old Woman Holding a Spindle is a part of his style and motifs that he carefully constucted with mastery. Moreover, this work is an example of the original paintings that Watteau copied and added his own touch on.
Pierre Crozat, a wealthy banker and art collector, commissioned Watteau for more similar works, which would decorate his dining room in Paris. The artist gained popularity fast and more collectors paid him in order to add his paintings to their collections. Two important patreons are Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766) and Edme-François Gersaint.
Heritage and Death
Although he limited himself to chalk, Watteau developed the technique and his clients and peers praised him for it. He did not invent this technique himself, but his mastery on it proved him superior to his predecessors. Watteau’s artistic legacy pervades French art up to the emergence of Neoclassicism. His techiques were widely followed in France, even if he virtually didn’t have many students and followers. Art owes a major debt to Watteau’s enigmatic fêtes galantes and elegant trois crayons drawings. The artist died on July 18th 1721 in Nogent-sur-Marne, France.