Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Marvelous Returns: La Surprise

The first in a series of posts. (This Believer article was the original.)

In 2007, a British family held a routine valuation of their country home. In a corner of a drawing room, the appraisers uncovered an oil painting of two lovers engaged in an unexpected embrace while an amused guitarist looks on. The panel was a lost masterpiece by the French-Flemish painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), which had not been seen for two hundred years. Appropriately, its title is La Surprise.

Watteau probably painted La Surprise in 1718 for Nicolas Hénin, an adviser to King XV of France. After Hénin's death it passed to Jean de Jullienne, Watteau's biographer, who sold it sometime before 1756. After appearing in a 1764 catalog of Ange-Laurent de la Live de Jully, the first serious collector of French painting, La Surprise vanished from official records during the upheavals of the French Revolution. Sometime in the early 19th century it arrived in England, and in 1848, one Lady Murray bequeathed the painting to the family of the current owners (who have not been identified publicly), where it rested in obscurity until the 21st century. At its auction in 2008, Christies valued La Surprise at nearly $10,000,000. It sold for over $24,000,000.

Watteau himself is a surprising figure. Born in a Flemish town under French control, he was variously identified as French and Flemish during his lifetime, though he spent most of his career in Paris. In 1720, suffering from chronic ill health, Watteau traveled to London to seek treatment from the famous physician Dr. Richard Mead. But the city's climate worsened the frail painter's condition, and he returned to France only to die the following year at the age of 37. Equally surprising is Watteau's improvisational method of composition, in which he began with a landscape and then inserted figures taken from studies in his notebooks, adjusting or deleting them until he arrived at the final arrangement. In the case of La Surprise, the guitar player is an actor from the Comedie Italienne, dressed as the character Mezzetin, while the lovers are copied from a 1635 painting by Rubens which was held in the French royal collection during Watteau's time. Radiographs have revealed an entirely different surprise beneath Watteau's final image: a recapitulation of the painter's older composition, La Sérénade Italienne.

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