Watteau Show Snubs "Italian Comedians"
|Jean-Antoine Watteau (with some dissent), The Italian Comedians, about 1720. J. Paul Getty Museum|
The Getty Center's "La Surprise: Watteau in Los Angeles" brings together "all the works in Los Angeles by the artist." Despite that claim, one L.A. Watteau is conspicuous by its absence. It's the big, disputed Italian Comedians that the Getty bought in 2012 as the museum's first Watteau (maybe). That painting is on view a few galleries away (room S203), labeled as a Watteau and hanging next to works by Chardin and Fragonard. But the museum has ghosted it from the "La Surprise" exhibition, without so much as a text panel mention of its existence. I'd read that as a passive-aggressive vote of no confidence. (Getty painting curator Davide Gasparotto says the large Italian Comedians would have created "great imbalance" next to the smaller paintings and drawings.)
Former Getty curator Scott Schaefer bought The Italian Comedians, a bold move given that scholars were split on its attribution. Schaefer believed it was likely to be autograph. In 2017 Schaefer's successor, Gasparotto, bought the small, unquestioned La Surprise as "undoubtedly one of the most exquisite and important Watteau paintings to become available in modern times" (and not mentioning the one the museum had bought only five years previously). Since then the Getty and its two Watteaus have been like the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
A companion publication, Watteau at Work, is more forthcoming than the show itself is. An essay by Emily Beeny reports that "with acquisition budgets curtailed by the economic downturn of 2008, no museum was in a position to pursue La Surprise" when auctioned on July 8 of that year. (It then went for $24 million.) Four years later, the Getty bought The Italian Comedians for an undisclosed sum. Then in 2017 rebounding markets made possible the spectacular group acquisition of La Surprise and drawings by Michelangelo, Rubens, Goya, and Degas.
|The Italian Comedians with paintings by Chardin, Fragonard, and de Troy|
The publication reproduces The Italian Comedians and summarizes its history. The painting's provenance goes back to the 18th century, but so does the controversy over its authorship. The picture is unusual for Watteau in its scale (almost 51 inches high), bold brushwork, and cool palette. The figures are familiar from accepted Watteau paintings and drawings (which is in keeping with the artist's habit of recycling figure studies). Watteau experts have pointed out some awkward passages while concurring that the painting's overall quality is beyond that of any of the known followers or early copyists of Watteau.
The most significant technical point in favor of Watteau's participation is that the white-suited Pierrot closely follows a Watteau drawing in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, that has the head looking downward. Imagery shows that Pierrot's head was originally downcast, then repainted to have him meet the eyes of the viewer.
It's been proposed that the Italian Comedians was begun by Watteau and completed by another artist—making it a Polish Rider of sorts. This was apparently the median opinion in 2012, and as far as I can tell, opinions have not shifted since then. Like pandemics, attribution disputes resolve in their own time, and that may not be our time.
UPDATE: See Davide Gasparotto's comments below (fourth post). The Getty performed technical investigations on The Italian Comedians before the exhibition and plans to convene a panel of Watteau experts to discuss its attribution.
P.S. The exhibition's surprise loans are from from L.A. collectors Ariane and Lionel Sauvage. They've lent three paintings and several drawings, some relating to works in the city's museum collections.
SEE ALSO: All the Watteaus in Los Angeles (from 2017).
|Watteau, The Ogling Woman, about 1716. Collection of Ariane and Lionel Sauvage|