When Antoine Watteau began his career as a painter he was very much influenced by Rubens. No big surprise there, most modern painters of the day loved Rubens, if you were in you liked Rubens! Watteau took is love for art and began painting in Paris around age 18.
After arriving to Paris he worked with Claude Gillot. Gillot's occupation was mainly in theatre design. He painted scenes and ornaments to be used for show and was innovated with the rococo style. Claude Audran was another painter of the same variety the young Watteau worked with. The advantages of this relationship were great, as Audran was the Keeper of the Palais du Luxembourg, affording Watteau the chance to study up close the Marie de Medici cycle (24 amazing paintings commissioned by Marie.) (*jealous*)
From these early experiences he brings to his paintings style, characters (for a more detailed look at his theatre inspiration read this great post by Heather on such characters!), and details yet infuses the works with a bit of a personal touch. His characters have personalities and something like life within them. He was afforded commissions by the financier and art collector Pierre Crozat. For some time Watteau actually lived at Crozat's residence and was afforded the luxury of developing his works even more. It was an ideal learning environment full of collected art from master artists, inspiration abound!
Along with a great studio environment came friends and patrons. He had fans in the merchant class. He had fans in the aristocracy. His work was modern and different. Now he even had a connection with the Regent, who was also a fan of good art.
So the next step was getting into the Academy where any artist who is anyone went! Admission required a work to be produced and hopefully it would pass and the artist would be admitted. Typically there was direction for this work but things had changed a bit and for Watteau, he could chose a piece of his own desire. The ever popular work you may know, Embarkation from the Island of Cythera, was his golden ticket. He was admitted and even noted for creating a new genre of painting!
Une Fete Galante.
The demand for these pleasing pieces was great, and Watteau was there to help meet this demand. He kept clients happy by giving them what they wanted, and his style continued to mature with each piece.
He blends his inspiration; theatre styles and characters, use of color, his experience with the rococo style and ornamentation and the Rubenesque style of interlacing of these characters and decorations together. It is a lot of influence and yet not at all!
Together his work creates a almost comforting personal look, where the characters feel real, feel individual and not in anyway forced or typical. The overall style was a major success with the tastes of the market, he even landed a commission from the Regent himself!
To get a feel of just how Watteau's style differed from other contemporaries of his, compare these pieces. Here is a piece by Lancret, another painter who produced lovely fete galante paintings and was widely popular, titled Concert in the Park and a piece by Watteau, titled The Concert. What differences do you see? (click to enlarge)