Birthday Surprises — Watteau Turns 325 Today

Posted in anniversaries, Art Market, exhibitions by Editor on October 10, 2009

On this, the 325th birthday of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), it’s worth recalling the circumstances surrounding the recent discovery and sale of La Surprise, which is, incidentally, included in the Watteau, Music, and Theater exhibition now on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From ArtDaily.org, 9 July 2008:


Jean-Antoine Watteau, “La Surprise,” oil on panel, 14.1/2 x 11.1/2 inches, ca. 1718

LONDON A recently rediscovered masterpiece by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) sold at Christie’s auction of Important Old Master and British Pictures this evening for £12,361,250 / $24,376,385 / €15,513,369, a world record price for any French Old Master painting sold at auction. La Surprise had been missing for almost 200 years, presumed to have been destroyed, and was previously known only by a copy in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace and through a contemporary engraving. It was found in the corner of a drawing room in a British country house during a Christie’s valuation last year.

Richard Knight, International Director of Christie’s Old Master Department and Paul Raison, Director and Head of Old Master Pictures at Christie’s, London: “We are thrilled to have realised a record price for La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau, who is recognised as one of the most influential artists in the history of European art. It was extremely exciting to have rediscovered the painting last year, its whereabouts having been a mystery for almost 200 years, and it has been a great honour to have shown the picture to the public for the first time in over two centuries during pre-sale exhibitions in London, Paris, New York and St Petersburg. This is not only one of the most extraordinary rediscoveries of recent years, but also the most expensive French Old Master painting ever sold at auction, and we are pleased to have welcomed international interest from a number of collectors and institutions at this evening’s sale” . . .

La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was painted circa 1718 and was first owned by Nicolas Henin (1691-1724), an Advisor to the French King who was one of Watteau’s best and most constant friends. It is likely that the work was painted for Henin together with its pendant L’Accord Parfait, now in the Los Angeles Museum of Art. The legendary connoisseur and collector Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) noted in his Abecedario of 1746 that La Surprise is “one of [Watteau’s] most beautiful paintings.” On Nicolas Henin’s death in 1724, the two paintings went to the artist’s friend and biographer Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766) who had them engraved and published in the Recueil Jullienne, and who seems to have split the pair and sold them before 1756. La Surprise next appears in the celebrated collection of Ange-Laurent de La Live de Jully (1725-1779), who is recognised as assembling the first serious art collection dedicated to the encyclopedic display of French painting. The catalogue of his collection was published in 1764 and describes La Surprise as executed “with a piquant touch and richly tinted with the color of Rubens.” The picture had left the collection by 1770 and amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution, it is not recorded until it appears in a Lady Murray’s probate valuation of 1848, by whom it was bequeathed to the family of the vendors at this evening’s auction. The painting’s attribution and significance had remained lost until its rediscovery last year. . .

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was born in the Flemish town of Valenciennes, which had passed to France from Spanish rule just six years earlier, and left for Paris in about 1702. He was to be influenced by Flemish art throughout his career, and was often considered a Flemish painter by his contemporaries. In Paris, he worked with Claude Gillot (1673-1722) and became fascinated by theatre costume and stage design, before moving to the workshop of Claude Audran III, curator of the Palais du Luxembourg where Watteau was introduced to Rubens’s magnificent and inspirational canvases painted for Queen Marie de Medici. The work of Rubens was to influence Watteau throughout his career as he revitalised the Baroque style and became a pioneer of Rococo art. Watteau was frail and subject to ill health throughout his life and in 1720, he travelled to London to visit Dr. Richard Mead, a celebrated physician, in the hope of medical relief. Unfortunately, the climate and air quality in the city hindered any progress and he returned to France where he died in 1721 at the age of 37.


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