This beautiful little copper appeared in several important collections in the 18th and 19th centuries, but has been unknown to recent scholars and missing from the modern scholarly literature on the artist. Because of its copper support, small size and striking subject matter, it is easily identified in the Collet Collection sale of 1787, in the 1822 sale of the paintings of Robert de Saint-Victor, and in the 1856 auction of the celebrated English collector Samuel Rogers, one of five paintings by Watteau in Roger's possession at the time of his death.
The painting depicts a garden landscape with a kneeling man, seen from behind, who pleads for the attention of a seated young woman; near them, variously standing and seated are four children and a dog. The two groups of figures -- the couple, and the children -- derive from the larger, multi-figural fête galante known as the Assemblée galante (it comprised fourteen figures, measured 37 x 51.6 cm. and was executed on canvas; DV.139; CR.171), a painting that has been lost since the 18th century, but which was originally owned by the comtesse de Verrue and whose composition is known from the 1731 engraving of the painting made by J.-Ph. Le Bas for the Recueil Jullienne. It was not uncommon for Watteau to recycle motifs from one painting to another: although his friend and biographer, the comte de Caylus, complained that Watteau "repeated, on many occasions, the same figures without being aware of it", the practice was surely not the result of carelessness; rather, the artist was happy to exploit, in new contexts, figures that he found especially expressive. For example, he created a small-scale painting called Bon Voyage (lost; known from Benoit Audran's 1727 engraving, DV.35) by incorporating the principal couple from the far right-side of The Embarkation to Cythera (Louvre, Paris) with the boat and sea-bound pilgrims from its left side, and eliminating everything in between. In Pour nous prouver que cette belle, a panel painting in the Wallace Collection, London (CR.154), Watteau created a 'condensed' version of Prelude to a Concert (CR.179), an earlier, complex multi-figural fête galante in Potsdam, lifting the figures of a woman reading a musical score and a standing lute player from the German painting and compressing them into the tiny London picture, adding three new figures around them, and in so doing creating a new composition, as Christoph Vogtherr has recently observed (see C.M. Vogtherr, Watteau in the Wallace Collection, London, 2011, pp. 97-103). In the same fashion, La Déclaration compresses two distinct figural groups -- the adult couple and the playing children -- from different sections of an ambitious and complex composition, creating in the process a new and more intimate cabinet picture with its own mood and meaning.
La Déclaration is executed on copper, a support Watteau used occasionally throughout his career for small pictures (for example, Les fatigues de guerre and Les dèlassements de la guerre, in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg (CR.97 & 96); the two versions of the pair L'Avanturière and L'Enchanteur in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Troyes (CR.89 & 88) and Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran). La Déclaration is rapidly and thinly painted on a very lightly prepared surface, which is characteristic of the artist's paintings on metal. Interestingly, La Déclaration is painted on an engraver's discarded copper plate: if one examines the reverse, the incised lines of a Madonna are readily evident (fig. 1). The engraving has not been identified, but it is almost certainly not the work of Watteau himself; rather it appears to be an anonymous French engraver's plate from around 1700 that Watteau thriftily turned to good use. This was common practice for the artist: the paintings L'Accord parfait (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; CR.196) and La Sérénade Italienne (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm; CR.136) were executed on old wooden coach doors; the drawing The Italian Troop (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin) was sketched on the verso of a sheet of paper that has a proof state of one of Watteau's own etchings printed on the recto.
Two drawings survive for figures in the painting: a study for the kneeling lover is in the Louvre, Paris (RP.504); and a wonderful trois crayons sketch for the standing child who looks out at us, which will be sold in these rooms, 31 January 2013, lot 128 (fig. 2). Both of these drawings have been dated circa 1716-1717 by Rosenberg and Prat. La Déclaration itself seems, based on the style of its execution, to have been painted around 1718; that it was not engraved for the Recueil Jullienne was no doubt due to its similarities to the Assemblée galante.
La Déclaration will appear in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Watteau's paintings by Alan Wintermute currently in preparation.