French rococo painter. He developed a new category of genre painting known as the fête galante – fanciful scenes depicting elegantly dressed young people engaged in outdoor entertainment. One of the best-known examples is The Embarkation for Cythera (1717; Louvre, Paris).
Watteau was born in Valenciennes. At first inspired by Flemish genre painters, he produced tavern and military scenes. His early years in Paris, from 1702, introduced him to fashionable French paintings and in particular to decorative styles and theatrical design. He studied with Claude Gillot (1673–1722) and, like his master, painted scenes from the commedia dell'arte (Italian comedy), which was then in vogue in Paris. Among the finest is Gilles (Louvre, Paris), its subtle characterization showing his typical blend of gaiety and sadness.
Inspired by various old masters in the Palais de Luxembourg collection, in particular Rubens, Watteau began to develop his own distinctive style for painting elegant party groups, such as those hosted by his patron, Crozat. In 1717 he was made a member of the French Royal Academy, his Embarkation for Cythera being his ‘diploma piece’.
His draughtsmanship was superb, and he had complete mastery of atmosphere and composition. Despite his premature death from tuberculosis, Watteau exercised a profound and lasting influence on French art.
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