Jean-Antoine Watteau, better known as Antoine Watteau, was a French painter whose brief career spurred the revival of interest in colour and movement, as seen in the tradition of Correggio and Rubens. He revitalized the waning Baroque style, shifting it to the less severe, more naturalistic, less formally classical Rococo. Watteau is credited with inventing the genre of fêtes galantes, scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with a theatrical air. Some of his best known subjects were drawn from the world of Italian comedy and ballet.
Watteau was born in the town of Valenciennes in October 1684. Showing an early interest in painting, Jean-Antoine may have been apprenticed to Jacques-Albert Gérin, a local painter. Jean-Antoines first artistic subjects were charlatans selling quack remedies on the streets of Valenciennes. Watteau left for Paris in about 1702. There he found employment in a workshop at Pont Notre-Dame, making copies of popular genre paintings in the Flemish and Dutch tradition; it was in that period that he developed his characteristic sketchlike technique.
In 1703 he was employed as an assistant by the painter Claude Gillot, whose work represented a reaction against the turgid official art of Louis XIVs reign. In Gillots studio Watteau became acquainted with the characters of the commedia dellarte (its actors had been expelled from France several years before), a favorite subject of Gillots that would become one of Watteaus lifelong passions. Afterward he moved to the workshop of Claude Audran III, an interior decorator, under whose influence he began to make drawings admired for their consummate elegance. Audran was the curator of the Palais du Luxembourg, where Watteau was able to see the magnificent series of canvases painted by Peter Paul Rubens for Queen Marie de Medici. The Flemish painter would become one of his major influences, together with the Venetian masters he would later study in the collection of his patron and friend, the banker Pierre Crozat.
In 1709 Watteau tried to obtain the Prix de Rome and was rejected by the Academy. In 1712 he tried again and was considered so good that, rather than receiving the one-year stay in Rome for which he had applied, he was accepted as a full member of the Academy. He took five years to deliver the required reception piece, but it was one of his masterpieces: the Pilgrimage to Cythera, also called the Embarkation for Cythera.
Although his mature paintings seem to be so many depictions of frivolous fêtes galantes, they in fact display a sober melancholy, a sense of the ultimate futility of life, that makes him, among 18th-century painters, one of the closest to modern sensibilities.