Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

Watteau was one of the 'greatest and best draughtsmen in France' in the opinion of Edme Gersaint, an art-dealer, friend and patron. He also praised his work for its 'finesse, grace, lightness, accuracy, ease and expression.'

Watteau was born in Valenciennes in 1684. He went to Paris in 1702 and until 1708 worked with Claude Gillot (1673-1732), a printmaker and painter. He also studied major Parisian collections of paintings, prints and drawings, notably the colourful works of Rubens (1577-1640), a major influence, the dazzling costumes of van Dyck (1599-1641) and Venetian artists, from whose use of colour he took inspiration.

In 1717 he submitted his Diploma picture, The Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (Musée du Louvre, Paris) to the French Royal Academy. Its subject, the fête galante, was Watteau's vision of an ideal world where the elegant and graceful figures of the commedia dell'arte enjoy the delights of nature, music and love. This new genre, with no defined narrative, rapidly became very popular.

In 1719 Watteau was ill, probably with tuberculosis, and sought the advice of a famous English doctor, Dr Mead in London. He returned to Paris and died in 1721.

The British Museum's collection of Watteau's work is one of the best in the world, with drawings of a variety of subjects: studies of musicians and actors, informal portraits, nudes, hands, women's costumes, and landscapes. He used chalk in three colours - red, white and black - often drawing from life. The line is delicate, the forms elegant and natural.

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