Antoine Watteau was the most influential French painter of the early eighteenth century. His development of the Fête galante led to immediate success and became his hallmark as a painter. The beginning of his very successful career developed largely outside the sphere of the Académie royale and within the context of traditional workshops of decorative painting. Most of his easel paintings were produced directly for the art market; only a very small number of commissions are known. Watteau was one of the most brilliant colourists in French painting and probably the greatest draftsman in France in the eighteenth-century.
Watteau was born in Valenciennes in 1684. He arrived in Paris around 1702 and first worked with the merchant Etienne Desrais on pont Notre-Dame producing copies. At an unknown date, he joined the workshop of Claude Gillot. At around 1707/1708 Watteau began to work with Claude III Audran (1657-1734) whose workshop specialised in decorative paintings. The location of the workshop in a royal building gave Watteau freedom from guild regulations, and he could for the first time produce paintings in his own name. In 1709, Watteau won the second place in the Grand prix at the Academy. In the autumn of 1710, Watteau went back to Valenciennes for family reasons, a date confirmed by the passport issued for the artist. Around this time, he produced two military scenes for the merchant Pierre Sirois. After his return, Watteau worked for Antoine Dieu (1662-1727), producing a sketch for a tapestry cartoon (Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw).
After these slow beginnings in different genres, Watteau became extremely successful with his most important innovation: a new, contemporary French version of the pastoral - paintings that were called Fêtes galantes from the 1720s onwards. It is most likely that Watteau developed the new genre around 1710. With this new type of painting his rise with collectors and the art market was meteoric. It was in reaction to his new fame that Watteau was agréé (candidate) at the Academy on 30 July 1712. After five years and many reminders by the Academy, Watteau became a member on 28 August 1717 with his "Pélérinage à l’Ile de Cythère" (Louvre, Paris). It was believed until recently that Watteau had been admitted in the new genre particulier of Fête galante, but he was accepted as a full member, i. e. a history painter.
At the end of 1717, Watteau lived with the collector Pierre Crozat where he had access to Crozat’s extraordinary collection of Old Master paintings and drawings. In 1718/1719, Watteau lived with his artist friend Nicolas Vleughels who appeared in several of Watteau’s paintings. Probably in order to explore a new market, Watteau went to London in 1719 where he stayed with Doctor Mead, one of the preeminent collectors of his day in Britain. On his return from London in 172the spring of 0, Watteau painted his most famous work, "L’enseigne", the so-called "Shopsign of Gersaint" (Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin). A meeting of the Venetian pastel and miniature painter Rosalba Carriera and Watteau in August of that year is mentioned in Rosalba’s diary. Watteau died on 18 July 1721.