Published: December 13, 2011
Antoine Watteau’s magnificent picture “La Surprise” has long been deemed a masterpiece of Eighteenth Century French painting by scholars and connoisseurs. The panel was originally in the collection of Nicolas Hénin (1691‱724), councilor to the king and a close friend of the artist, for whom it may have been painted. The work then entered several prestigious Parisian collections before ending up in England and disappearing from public view.
Unpublished, unexhibited and presumed lost for nearly 200 years, “La Surprise” was discovered in an English private collection in 2007. The current owner’s generosity has made it possible for this important example from Watteau’s oeuvre to be admired by visitors to the Frick Collection, where the picture will be on loan for two years. It is currently installed in the North Hall, near works by other French artists, among them Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Claude Monet.
The Frick’s only Watteau, “The Portal at Valenciennes” †a work from the artist’s early maturity †also hangs in this gallery. During the residence of “La Surprise” at the Frick, a series of educational programs, including public lectures and gallery talks, will be offered to deepen public appreciation of the painting.
“La Surprise,” 1718‱9, is an exquisite example of the fête galante, a genre created by Watteau (1684‱721), who depicted elegant figures engaging in flirtations and other pleasurable activities amid bucolic surroundings. The artist’s pulsating colors and deft strokes of paint can be fully appreciated owing to the panel’s superb condition. Below a setting sun, a man sits tuning a guitar in a lush garden.
He is Mezzetin, a character from the Italian commedia dell’arte, and his costume of rose red punctuated with slashes of lemon yellow and pale blue embellishments indicates the theatrical source. Next to the serenading actor, a man in silver and white thespian costume sweeps a girl in peasant attire from her feet in an ardent embrace. The kissing couple is seemingly oblivious to both their neighbor and the curious black and white dog who witnesses the spectacle. Such overt theatrical allusions would have been immediately recognizable to Watteau’s audience and reveal his interest in contemporary opera and drama.
Watteau also sought inspiration from Peter Paul Rubens (1577‱640), with whom he shared a Flemish heritage. The entwined couple in “La Surprise” derives from Rubens’s painting “The Kermesse” (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Watteau copied the pair in a red chalk drawing, preserved in the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, later adjusting their postures slightly to suit his painted composition. The panel’s canine participant also derives from a work by Rubens, having been excerpted from “The Marriage by Proxy” episode in the Flemish master’s “Life of Marie de’ Medici” cycle (Musée du Louvre).
Despite its lengthy absence from public view, the much-admired composition was well known to Eighteenth Century connoisseurs and collectors. An engraving made after it by Benoît II Audran in 1731 appeared in the Recueil Jullienne , a two-volume compilation of Watteau’s paintings published by Jean de Jullienne, the artist’s friend and occasional dealer. Further, an early copy of the picture was purchased by the prince regent in 1819 and is today in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace.
The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-288-0700 or www.frick.org .
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