ANTOINE WATTEAU (1684-1721), French painter, was born at Valenciennes in 1684. Thrown on his own resources at an early age, the boy went moneyless and ragged alone to Paris. There, after a hard struggle, he succeeded in getting work with a painter of saints for country customers, who assigned to Watteau, the future limner of gallant feastings, the repetition of dozens of St Nicholas. The saint brought him food and shelter, and in his few holidays Watteau sketched and drew. From this shop he passed to the studio of Gillot, whose influence helped him to follow the true direction of his own special gifts, but he left him, finding employment with Audran the decorator, then at work in the Luxembourg. Then Watteau quarrelled with Audran and went his way, fancying that Audran had blamed his first picture, the Departing Regiment, out of jealousy; and, flushed with success (for he had sold the work), he went off to show himself in his native Valenciennes. There Watteau produced a second work, a Regiment Halting, which also sold in Paris, so thither he returned, and, welcomed by the celebrated Crozat, received fresh inspiration from his taste and the study of his immense collections. In 1709 he competed for the great prize, and, standing only second, applied for a crown pension to enable him to go to Italy. As proofs of his deserts, he carried to the Academy his first two pictures. His cause was warmly espoused by De la Fosse, and he was instantly made an associate of that body, becoming a full member in 1717. His diploma picture, Embarkation for the Isle of Venus, is now in the Louvre. Suffering always from lung disease, and of a highly nervous temperament, Watteau was, however, unfitted to live and work with others, and, in spite of his professional success and his assured reputation, he held himself apart, ill at ease with himself and seldom happy in his work, which suffered in sympathy with his changing moods. A visit to London further disturbed his health, and in 1721 he returned to Paris, establishing himself for a while in the house of his friend Gersaint, the picture dealer, for whom he painted a sign-board which had an extraordinary success (a fragment in the collection Schwitzer). Hoping to find rest and some alleviation to his increasing sufferings from country air, he accepted a lodging at Nogent, in the house of M. Lefebvre, which had been obtained for him through his constant friend the abbe Haranger, canon of St Germain l'Auxerrois. At Nogent, shortly after his arrival, on 18th July 1821, Watteau died, having bequeathed to the abbe, to Gersaint, to M. Henin, and to M. Julienne the vast quantity of drawings which constituted almost the whole of his fortune.
No greater contrast can be found than that which Watteau's work presents to the painful condition under which he lived his life, a contrast such as that which the boyish glee of Galdecott's designs showed in comparison to the physical misery against which his gallant spirit made so brave a stand. Watteau sought refuge, as it were, from his bodily pain in that fairyland which he created, where the pompous art of the "Grand Siecle" still cumbered the ground. His work, always conceived in a poetical spirit, lived in spite of the artificial atmosphere of the mock pastoral style of the day, and lives in virtue of the exquisite precision of his observation and of the extraordinary brilliancy and lightness of his art.