Watteau was brought up and served his apprenticeship in Valenciennes. His master seems to have been either the painter Jacques-Albert Gérin or the sculptor Antoine-Joseph Pater. He made a trip to Paris in 1702 and came into contact with Claude Gillot, a painter of theatrical subjects. He worked with Gillot around 1705-8 and was then employed by the painter of arabesque decorations Claude Audran III, who was also curator of the Palais du Luxembourg.
Through Audran Wattau was able to study Rubens’ Marie de Médicis cycle (now in the Louvre, Paris). In 1709 he entered a picture in the Rome prize (prix de Rome) organised by the French Royal Academy and won second prize, but this did not entitle him to funding to study in Rome.
After returning briefly to Valenciennes, he was back in Paris again probably in 1710. He was accorded associate membership of the French Royal Academy (agrée) in 1712, and when he finally produced his reception piece five years later he was accepted as a painter of fêtes galantes (the painting in question was the famous Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera in the Louvre). The fête galantes was a new category of subject matter established by Watteau involving timeless outdoor scenes of amorous dalliance enacted by figures partly in contemporary and partly in historical or theatrical dress.
Study of three male figures 1713-14, the Gallery’s sole drawing by Watteau, provided the inspiration for two figures in Watteau’s painting Love in the French Theatre (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). The figure playing a bagpipe appears on the left side of the painting, and the lounging figure in the centre. Wattea readily used a particular sketch more than once, and the reclining figure was also used in another painting, Summer (Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).
Suffering from tuberculosis, Watteau made a trip to London in 1719-20 to consult the famous doctor Richard Mead. Among his last works painted on his return to Paris was the remarkable shop-sign, known as the Enseigne de Gersaint. Painted for his friend the dealer Edmé-François Gersaint, it features in the background a version of Jordaens’ Mercury and Argus.