Getty Acquisition | ‘The Italian Comedians’ by Watteau

Posted in museums by Editor on March 18, 2012

Press release (15 March 2012) from the Getty:

Antoine Watteau, "The Italian Comedians," ca. 1720 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.5)

The J. Paul Getty Museum announced today the acquisition of The Italian Comedians (ca. 1720) by Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684–1721). The large oil painting (50 7/8 x 36 3/4 inches) was painted at the height of Watteau’s fame, shortly before his early death at age 36.

“This major, little-known painting is extraordinary. It shows Watteau at the height of his creative genius,” said James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “Not only will it enhance our paintings collection, but it complements the Museum’s collection of French decorative arts, which is amongst the finest in the world.”

The Italian Comedians joins 18th-century French paintings already in the Getty Museum’s collection by artists such as Nicolas Lancret (1690 –1743), Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), and Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), all of which have been acquired in the last decade.

The painting portrays five fairground comedians costumed as characters from the Comédie Italienne. Watteau, who would have seen the travelling performers at fairgrounds on the outskirts of Paris, often depicted members of this popular troupe in his fêtes galantes, small compositions showing conversations or music-making set in a park or landscape. Monumental paintings, in which the performers dominate a larger picture, are extremely rare in Watteau’s oeuvre. His compassionate depictions of the character Pierrot, a white-clad clown, are especially renowned, with one of the most notable being the life-size depiction of him that hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

In this painting, Pierrot and his troupe have just finished a performance and taken their bows. They have stepped off the makeshift stage and are about to start collecting money. All five of the actors look expectantly at the viewer. The central figure, Pierrot, holds his hat in one hand while his other reaches into a pocket of his baggy white jacket, cueing the audience, and the viewer, that it is time to show their appreciation.

“Watteau was perhaps the greatest French artist of the 18th century,” explains Scott Schaefer, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “This painting typifies the way that Watteau combined acuity and elegance with poetic powers of description, in equal parts sensitive and humorous.”

The Italian Comedians has been in private collections since the 18th century and has not been publicly exhibited since 1929. Over the last three centuries, its attribution has fluctuated. Until the late 19th century, the painting was attributed to Watteau. It was then assigned to Watteau’s pupil Jean-Baptiste Pater and subsequently to an anonymous painter in the circle of Watteau. Although the attribution has changed over time, the artwork has always been praised for its brilliant composition and emotional power and associated with Watteau’s psychologically profound depictions of the Italian Comedians. (more…)

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