Most notable for the dreamlike quality of his painting, Watteau turned the course of French art from the pompous classicism of Louis XIV to the delightfully sensuous colorism of the Rococo. This transformation he affected in a brief career of twenty years marred by poverty and illness. He is the archetype of the gay, witty side of French art, just as his predecessor Poussin exemplified its formal, rationalistic aspect. So Watteau seems basic to the French aesthetic, although argument might be made for him as a Fleming. He was born in Valenciennes, which had been French only six years, and his revision of French painting stemmed largely from his enthusiasm for Flemish art, especially that of Rubens.
Watteau came to Paris at eighteen and for several years was engaged in hack work, copying for art dealers and painting devotional images. From 1705-08 he worked with Gillot (see), a painter of scenery and of incidents of Italian Comedy. This made a permanent impression on Watteau, as did his work (1708) for Claude Audran, who was employed at the Luxembourg Palace. Both the Rubens paintings of the Medici gallery in the palace and the park and gardens outside had their effect. In 1709 he tried unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome and, embittered, returned to Valenciennes. Some of his paintings of soldiers may have been inspired by troops in the vicinity of Valenciennes at that time. He had a number of excellent friends among the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie of Paris: de Caylus, de Julienne, Gersaint and Crozat. Crozat had a large collection of Flemish and Venetian paintings and drawings: a new taste, running counter to the dominant classicism of the previous century. Watteau lived with Crozat, studied his collection and there met LaFosse, who nominated him as an associate of the Academy in 1712.
Watteau was nominated to the Academy in a new category: Fetes galantes. Five years later he painted his diploma picture, the Embarkation for Cythera (Louvre version), which illustrates this category. Such paintings by Watteau reflected the social ideal of the century. Courtly life was a dream world of gay amorous relations between couples. Conversation was a combination of pleasantry and intrigue; existence, an inextricable mixture of real and make-believe. The garden served as a retreat from the pretentious halls of their inherited architecture. Nature was Reality-leafy picturesque nature inhabited by statues of nymphs and Venuses more real in substance than tne flounces of courtly dress. The carefully observed details of costume and setting in painting were sublimated by a web of fine, colored brushstrokes that dissolved the forms and transformed the materialism of all objects. Small and intimate in format and figurescale, these canvases reduced Rubens’ Garden of Love to Cupid-size. It was a woman’s world, this petite Arcadia. Men are posed in pointed pirouettes as they entice their voluminous mates from the garden and usher them toward boats departing to the distant misty island of Love.
It all smacks of the theater, on which Watteau grounded his art, and primarily the Italian Comedy with its stock plots and characters. This popular dramatic form had been banned during the late years of Louis XIV but survived surreptitiously and was the rage of the Regency period. Watteau’s treatment of Italian comedy ranged from full scenes, such as Love in the Theatre (Berlin), to exquisite portrait studies, such as the Mezzetin (Metropolitan) and Gilles (Louvre). His art then was essentially genre painting, viz.. Fete in a Park (Wallace Collection) in which the same figures appear again and again, drawn from the repository of his own drawings. Most interesting perhaps of his straight genre subjects is the Signboard of Gersaint (Berlin), painted for his friend’s shop in his last year. By 1720 his illness (apparently consumption) had so worsened that he went to England to consult Queen Anne’s physician. Nothing could be done, so he returned to Paris, lived with Gersaint and with Vleughels and then retired to a country house where he died in 1721, In his last weeks he was reunited with his townsman and pupil Pater after long enmity. As most of his paintings had gone directly into private collections, his work was long known mainly through the copies engraved for de Julienne by Boucher and others.